Public and private sector leaders share experiences with COVID adjustments
Local leaders from both the public and private sectors shared details about adjusting to COVID-19 in settings ranging from ski lifts to schools during a virtual community conversation Monday night.
It’s been tough to run a business, some said, but the pain hasn’t been shared equally. Some Main Street art galleries have posted record years, while stages at music venues have stood empty.
Schools, once feared to become super-spreader sites, have proven largely safe. It’s now students’ mental health that is increasingly concerning a local superintendent.
The lodging industry is glad to once again be in control of its own operations after being shut down in the spring, but hoteliers are facing the absence and possible disappearance of the convention and conference business that has been a consistent money-maker for years.
And health care workers are bracing for a bleak winter while they see their neighbors relaxing COVID safety standards. Nurses and doctors who once feared bringing the disease home with them now worry about bringing it from their homes into the hospital, a hospital administrator said, as community spread continues to drive the explosion of new cases.
On the cusp of ski season, as the days have shortened, cases have risen and hospitals have filled, many have pinned their hopes on increasingly positive news of vaccine development and distribution.
But for most, the prospect of protection via vaccine is months away.
Monday’s discussion, which included representatives of the lodging, resort, health, education and business industries, was viewed by nearly 300 people online, offering viewers insight into how the community is grappling with the pandemic nine months on.
A local business leader early in the broadcast reminded viewers how critical this ski season is.
“I think the important thing to remember is that we have about 14,000 people who rely on the tourism industry for their livelihoods and thousands are still out of work today,” said Jennifer Wesselhoff, the newly named president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau. “It’s going to be, continue to be a hard winter as we navigate through this new normal.”
Wesselhoff added that she was impressed to see how the community has come together to support businesses and follow health and safety protocols.
But the officials touted another source of hope beyond impending vaccinations. Mike Goar, the chief operating officer of Park City Mountain Resort, said the big advantage of operating in December compared to when the virus first hit and the resorts shut down in March, is that industries have had months to develop safety protocols based on advancing science.
“That was by far the hardest decision I think any of us in our business will ever make,” Goar said of the decision to close PCMR in mid-March. “Because it’s not just closing our ski resort at that time, it was closing a lot of other businesses in our town and other towns.”
Since then, Goar said the resort had broken down nearly every aspect of day-to-day operations and examined them with an eye toward COVID safety, calling the magnitude of the resort’s safety protocols “extraordinary.”
“I don’t think that our resort is going to close down. I have a high degree of confidence that it’s going to stay open. And I believe that because of the protocols that are in place and our ability to manage this,” Goar said. “When you think back when we closed down in March, none of this was in place. We were reacting to a pandemic that was indeed just overwhelming to everyone. … We’re far more equipped now to deal with this.”
Goar was joined by most of the other industry leaders on the panel in touting the leadership of Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough. Goar said that he was thankful for their strong working relationship, adding that some resorts in other communities had a more antagonistic relationship with local health authorities.
Bullough has publicly acknowledged learning from changing science, saying Monday night that he had rethought his original position that reopening schools to in-person learning would quickly spread COVID-19.
He said his view has completely changed, and he now thinks schools are one of the safest places for students to be.
North Summit School District Superintendent Jerre Holmes said that the schools, too, had learned from missteps made early on in the pandemic. He outlined the schools’ contact tracing program and indicated that as many as 25 students could be forced into quarantine from one positive case of COVID-19.
The district recently shifted its high school to remote learning for one week to stem a growing tide of cases. But Holmes said that his experiences last spring showed him that the best place for students is in schools.
“For the most part, we’ve learned that they need to be in person,” Holmes said. “And it goes to the notion of not just their academic success, but we’re trying to take care of the whole child and that involves emotional, mental and social well-being. Those are the things that were concentrating on just as much as the academics.”
Holmes said the amount of anxiety increases in a school when administrators announce certain students have to come to the office to be told they must quarantine. He said many more students have been speaking to the district’s mental health professionals, something he attributed to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Bullough said that countywide, people seeking behavioral health services increased by 180% immediately after the pandemic hit.
Intermountain Park City Hospital CEO Lori Weston said health care workers have been dealing with the mental side effects of the pandemic, as well.
“The caregivers here, along with every caregiver in the nation and the world, they’re tired. It’s a lot of work to take care of the patients that we have, and it’s emotionally draining,” Weston said. “It’s a hard disease to have to watch and to have to treat. But they’re committed to this community and doing what we can to make sure that we have the care available to those that need it.”
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