Ghost Town Epidemic Feared by Area Leaders
~ by Rick Langenberg ~
Economic doom days may have arrived again for Cripple Creek and southern Teller, with the battle lines getting further drawn between local leaders and state health officials.
As expected, the Cripple Creek city government went into a 25-percent in-person capacity level of government operations last week, following a special meeting. This impacts the city’s workforce of nearly 70-full-time employees.
But unfortunately, this step sparked the beginning of another severe round of state restrictions for southern Teller that could wallop the region. The sudden issuing of these orders has shocked local officials and business leaders.
At issue is the fate of Cripple Creek casinos, who were ordered to close late Monday, with Teller’s new “Level Orange” at-risk designation, handed down by the state. This requirement, made late last week, only days after Teller was put on a “Yellow” designation, imposed big restrictions on business, such as making them operate at a 25-percent occupancy rate. It is similar to what has been imposed in El Paso County. But this Orange designation mandates the closure of casinos, unless the county makes a special request.
County officials have already taken this action and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) was scheduled to rule on the casino issue separately.
Unless the county receives a positive ruling from the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, the city will face nearly a complete closure, except for essential services, such as fire, police and public works. As of press time, the CDPHE was scheduled to make a ruling on the Cripple Creek casino situation.
If gaming establishments get shutdown for an extensive period, massive layoffs will ultimately occur for the city, and an already lean budget will of less than $9 million, will get slashed to nightmare levels. Plus, some departments could get eliminated. More than 1,000 casino workers and a spree of other businesses would also be severely impacted financially.
“It is going to be devastating for the entire area,” said Interim City Administrator Ray White, in describing any future casino closure action. Cripple Creek Councilwoman Meghan Rozell expressed similar sentiments and said she has already written to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, explaining the potential impacts for residents, casino worker, government employees and the entire region.
County and casino officials have already hit the lobbying trail big-time. White said the State Gaming Association made a presentation before the governor’s office, requesting that the casinos be evaluated as a separate entity.
In a press release, the Teller commissioners classified the CDPHE new Orange designation action as premature and way too restrictive. They maintained the county has not been given adequate time to mitigate their COVID case load from the Level Yellow. In a week period, the county was taken from the more normal Blue stage to the more extreme Orange level, which is a short step from a complete lockdown.
“We argued our case and believe that this move is seriously damaging to Teller County,” said the commissioners, in an official statement. Moreover, they stressed that this type of order is putting the region more at risk due to the financial impacts it will create.
Teller officials, though, have struggled with the CDPHE authorities in recent weeks, ever since new procedures were enacted, resulting in new color designation levels for areas of concerns, and no new variances. The county was denied an earlier request to reopen casino table games.
The commissioners and city officials also have noted that the casinos have done an admirable job in adhering to stringent COVID-19 protection measures. Very few of the county’s COVID-19 cases have been attributed to Cripple Creek casinos and southern Teller.
“The casinos are an extremely low-risk environment,” said White, He said very few outbreak areas have occurred in southern Teller. He said one Cripple Creek city employee was inflicted and reportedly a few employees of a casino tested positive. White stressed that both of these incidents were resolved promptly.
Altogether, the southern Teller area has only contained about 5 percent of the COVID cases in Teller.
This point was emphasized by the commissioners. “The casinos in Cripple Creek have done an exemplary job in compliance to COVID-19 state regulations. Their protocols, sanitation, temperature checks and response to a small outbreak have all been handled effectively and expeditiously,” stated the commissioners in a press release.
Plus, they emphasized the importance of striking a balance between public health and economic survival.
“Public safety is critical as is economic vitality and stability,” said the commissioners.
Rising Countywide Case Load Causing Problems
The main hurdle for the casinos to leap is their location in Teller County, which has experienced surging case numbers (see related story). Teller’s positive rate of COVID-19 cases has increased to 11.6 percent, among those tested, well above the accepted levels.
On the upside, Teller hasn’t experienced any shortage of COVID-19 hospitalization bed space.
In the first 10 days of November, Teller got hit with about 72 cases, which nearly represented the entire load for the previous month. “It is not a good situation,” said White. The majority of these stem from those attributed to the Woodland Park area, emphasized the city administrator.
White believes if a casino closure occurs, Cripple Creek and southern Teller is being unfairly punished. The commissioners have taken this one step further and say the casino industry is being singled out as the culprit, when they should be lauded for their cooperation.
Whatever ruling occurs and regardless of further negotiations, county leaders are expressing the importance of personal responsibility in abiding by COVID precautions, limiting big social gatherings and obeying social distancing requirements.
“We commend all businesses and organizations in Teller County who have worked hard to keep employees and patrons safe during the COVID-19 response. Please continue to apply COVID-19 health practices while conducting businesses and interacting in public spaces,” said the commissioners.