‘To this day, it stuns me.’ A year later, the people who’ve led Summit County’s COVID response recall the first days after the pandemic struck.
A half-dozen officials and audio from a closed-door meeting offer insight into the crisis response
Summit County Manager Tom Fisher, who is also a brigadier general in the Utah National Guard, paused during one of the more unusual meetings he’d convened in his time in the top post of the county’s government.
It was March 14, 2020.
Looking around the conference room, Fisher saw top officials from Summit County and Park City, elected officials and department heads in the same room working on the same problem.
In an interview nearly a year later recalling the early days of the pandemic that has changed so many aspects of daily life, Fisher drew on his military experience to describe his thinking at that moment.
“The Joint Chiefs of Staff never travel together. You very rarely see them in the same place,” Fisher said, referring to the body comprising the U.S. military’s top leaders. “There’s a reason for that: Because one bad thing happens and they’re all together, they’re all gone.”
While a worst-case scenario like that never came to pass in Summit County, the disease that would reshape the world hit the area early, and hit it hard.
One year ago, the county became the epicenter of the pandemic in Utah and briefly had the second-highest number of COVID cases per capita in the nation.
Just before the pandemic arrived, Park City was humming, with thousands of spring break tourists in town and more on the way in what was on pace to become the busiest ski season ever. All that changed on Friday the 13th, when the first documented case of community spread in Utah was discovered at a bar on Main Street.
The disease was now known to be spreading freely amid the general population, unlinked to any previously identified source. It marked a tipping point in the perception of the crisis.
Summit County Health Director Rich Bullough had been watching the virus for many weeks, becoming increasingly convinced it was only a matter of time before it would come to the county. He and his staff relied on calls with federal officials and reports from areas around the globe that were already grappling with an outbreak.
Other officials, meanwhile, had fewer resources to fall back on and were left scrambling to try to protect the community. And because of the newness of the disease and how early it came to Summit County, they could not rely on best practices or advice from outside authorities. There was nowhere to turn.
Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson and her office, for instance, had to craft legal orders out of thin air that would exercise unprecedented authority.
Sheriff Justin Martinez and other law enforcement leaders were facing a harrowing possibility of panicking masses fighting over dwindling supplies.
County officials were hearing from people afraid their houses would be burglarized, food would become scarce and that the county would lock everybody in their homes.
In interviews with a half dozen county officials and audio recordings of closed-door meetings, a picture emerges of the high-stakes early days of Summit County’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that over the last 12 months has killed 10 local residents and infected more than 5,000.
‘This was real. This was serious’
The first documented instance of community spread in Utah seemed almost absurdly poised to spread a virus: The sick person checked IDs at a bar that often had a line out the door, and every person who entered had to pass right by him.
The circumstances were sobering.
“There was one moment late at night, sitting at our counter, we were in the meeting and we were talking about how many people were in the line that day, how many people could’ve been exposed,” Bullough remembered. “I just put my head in my hands. I shook my head, I thought this was just going to skyrocket.”
Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist who would become the face of the state’s health response, personally conducted the contact tracing interview, Bullough said.
“When we put together that conference call … quickly, from Dr. Dunn’s voice, I understood this was real. This was serious,” he said.
Dunn’s conclusion: The employee was not infected through contact with someone whom authorities knew to be suffering from COVID-19. The virus was spreading through Summit County, hidden from the view of public health officials.
Bullough had to make the difficult call to the manager of the bar, The Spur Bar & Grill, to order it to close.
“About midnight, after getting off the first phone call with Dr. Angela Dunn, I called the manager of the Spur, told them they would have to close,” he said. “… Her foremost interest, and it was very clear, was her employees. She was super concerned about them. Not just concerned about their employment and their business, but about their health. It was a hard, emotional call. Unfortunately, it was one of many I had to make in following weeks.”
The spread that followed wasn’t as extreme as officials had feared. But officials didn’t know that when, in those first days, they watched case numbers rise exponentially.
“Think back to this: Nobody really knew what the case fatality rate was. Numbers being bounced around, 2% to 5%,” Bullough said. “Fortunately it’s lower than that. Think about 5% of people getting this ending up deceased.”
Suddenly the leaders who had been elected or hired to direct the county’s government — entrusted to oversee its $60 million budget, its hundreds of miles of trails, its libraries, sidewalks and streets — these people were now being asked to lead the way during a health emergency, to protect the lives of the 42,000 people who call Summit County home and the 10,000 visitors who were in town that fateful Friday.
Olson recalled her mindset as she considered the county’s situation.
“Rich Bullough was saying the virus was going to double every two to five days,” she said. “Start looking at that like, we have the four ICU units (at Park City Hospital), we have the four ventilators. What are we going to do?”
The approaching storm
On a trip to Moab two weeks before the incident at the Spur, the situation crystallized in Bullough’s mind: The Health Department had to start a public conversation to prepare the community for the coronavirus.
He had been monitoring the situation since December and considering what to do when it arrived, he said, recalling the increasingly dire situation in Italy and elsewhere.
“It wasn’t in Utah yet but obviously it was in the country. Watching the way it hit in particular the assisted living centers, it was very clear: Any high-density situation, it was going to rage through those centers,” he said. “I had little doubt it was going to be in Salt Lake and some other areas before we knew it.”
Ilyssa Golding, a physician and then the chair of the Summit County Board of Health, remembers the March 2 board meeting the Monday after Bullough returned from Moab, where an unusual number of community members attended and heard the director’s assessment.
“I just remember Rich saying it’s not if, it’s when,” Golding said.
Fisher, the county manager, said he and Bullough had periodic conversations about what turned out to be COVID-19 starting in late December, and that he was hearing about the disease from National Guard sources in December and January.
He was privy to intelligence that indicated the U.S. government officials were taking the situation seriously.
Fisher identified a turning point in his mindset about the pandemic when he saw some of the first COVID patients being transported following their vacation aboard a cruise ship.
“I remember the state health department having to meet, to have a plan to meet those folks at the private airline that was bringing them in. They were PPEd up, had a plan how to transport them into their homes for isolation,” he said. “I think that’s, for me, (when I thought) ‘This is a little different than I’ve dealt with before.’”
The frequency of the conversations between Fisher and Bullough picked up around mid-February as the gravity of the situation became clearer.
“The only analogy I can give, and this is only my experience, (it was) kind of like a ramp-up toward a military conflict. They’re very rarely immediate things,” he said. Fisher served as a logistics officer in Iraq for more than a year beginning in December 2003. “… It reminds me of the six months before the U.S. went into Iraq in the 2002, 2003 timeframe. You start to see the machine of the federal government, the State Department and the military starting to move. Mid-February it became an inevitability. Rich and I, we started to prepare the (County) Council, we started to prepare the Board of Health.”
Fisher said he and Bullough had discussed what they would do when community spread occurred in Summit County two weeks or more before it happened.
Bullough said he drew on his training, past work for the National Institute of Health and extensive study of reports from health officials around the world in determining the path forward for the county.
The county issued an emergency declaration and a public health order on Thursday, March 12, after the second local case was announced and before community spread was identified, then ordered many businesses to close March 15.
Horror stories were emerging from around the globe. Images were being broadcast of overloaded hospitals and patients dying in hallways and parking lots.
In Summit County, Bullough and other officials watched the case numbers rise.
‘To this day, it stuns me’
Hours after the Spur closed its doors for what the manager feared might be the final time, Fisher, Bullough and then-County Councilor Kim Carson drove to Salt Lake City for a Saturday morning news conference at the Utah Department of Health to announce the case of community spread.
It was clear the pandemic was entering a new phase.
Carson recalled being sick to her stomach when she considered the gravity of the information she was relaying.
“But of course, all of us were just in the mode of — it was all hands on deck,” she said. “So we all did whatever we were asked to do.”
The group headed back to Summit County and convened a high-ranking meeting to formulate a response. Young recalled Fisher’s leadership at that meeting as integral.
Many officials pointed to that Saturday meeting as a turning point, the private equivalent to the more public events the night before, when what seemed like a nightmare scenario played out at the Spur.
The next day, officials once again convened for a conference featuring department heads from Park City and Summit County, county councilors, multiple mayors and top law enforcement officials, some meeting in person and others calling in.
In an audio recording obtained by The Park Record, the person facilitating the meeting voiced the same sort of concern that Fisher mentioned about high-ranking officials gathering in one place.
“A huge fear for all of us is that the key players that are in this room, we start to go down and we start to transmit it,” the person said. “So, when you’re here, practice good hygiene. As best as you’re able to, please, please call in so we can prevent a meeting of this size.”
It would be months before mask-wearing became mandatory in Summit County, and the meeting was in the days before Zoom calls became commonplace.
Just as public officials were considering next steps, the ski resorts that drive tourism and are responsible for so much of the economic activity in the western part of Summit County were considering their role, as well.
Bullough recalled a meeting with Todd Shallan, then Deer Valley’s president and chief operating officer; Mike Goar, chief operating officer at Park City Mountain Resort; as well as Park City and Summit County officials and several lawyers in a room in Park City’s Marsac Building.
“We talked about closing (the resorts), and to their incredible credit, they were already on top of this. They said, in essence, we’re going to do the right thing. You don’t need to close us, we’re going to close,” Bullough said.
The resorts publicly announced they were suspending operations Saturday, March 14, and made the move permanent days later, ending what had been shaping up as a record-breaking ski season in Park City weeks before scheduled.
Several officials indicated the closures likely made it easier to reduce the number of tourists in town and lauded the resorts’ decision to act in the community’s interest.
“Think about that — sitting with one of the primary drivers of the economy and having a conversation about closing them because of a communicable disease raging around and blowing around the community,” Bullough said. “To this day, it stuns me.”
‘If we wanted to save lives, we have to do this’
Officials at that point were considering closing entire segments of the economy and shutting down many aspects of public life to preserve public health.
On Sunday, March 15, Summit County did just that.
Bullough, in his capacity as the public health officer, and Olson, in hers as the county attorney, ordered sweeping closures to businesses where people gather, including bars, restaurants, gyms and churches.
Bullough said the next public health steps were relatively clear, but it was now up to the Summit County Attorney’s Office to craft legal orders and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, Park City Police Department and others to enforce them and preserve public safety.
Olson recalled an absence of guidance from federal or state government authorities.
“My challenge as county attorney, I had to advise the Health Department and the county on what they could legally do. So there we are, fishing around in the Utah code. I was reading code sections I’d never had to read before. I mean, they were there, but going in there, analyzing those, drafting legal documents from scratch — there was no template or anything to reference or copy,” Olson said.
Many of the health orders Summit County attorneys crafted in the early days of the pandemic formed the basis for some state orders, officials said, and were used by other jurisdictions.
Summit County was the first in the state to issue a stay-at-home order on March 25, for instance, and one of the first to mandate mask-wearing. Bullough and other officials have credited the county’s early adoption of public health measures as helping stem the tide of the virus’ spread.
Young, the deputy county manager, recalled that some of the county’s earliest measures weren’t universally supported.
“(The stay-at-home order) was a really tough thing to do. Ultimately, it’s going to hurt people’s lives,” she said.
But county officials were faced with rising case counts with no end in sight.
“We really have this one effort to keep it from spreading, because it was here,” she said. “And if we wanted to save lives, we have to do this. But let’s do it in a way where people could still live.”
Olson said many of the orders started on a completely blank piece of paper, adding that there was no “Pandemic Law” course offered when she was in law school.
“There was nobody in the country I could call and say, ‘Hey, I’m looking at mass quarantine orders and shutdown of everything but essential businesses. Can I do it? Have you done it? What was your experience? What would you do differently next time?’”
She said she called a national organization of district attorneys for advice on coordinating jury trials, but came up empty.
“They’re like, ‘We don’t know. If you develop a protocol, will you submit it to us?’” Olson said.
‘A person is smart, people are panicky’
While Olson grappled with state code, other law enforcement officials were concentrating on the potential for massive civil unrest.
“Let’s face it: A person is smart, people are panicky,” Sheriff Justin Martinez said at the March 15 meeting of county leaders. “People can have that mob mentality.”
Young said at the emergency meeting that she’d been “hearing some rumblings” about people who were beginning to feel insecure in their own homes. Many grocery store shelves, meanwhile, were bare as residents scrambled to stock up in the face of uncertainty.
“We may get to a point where people are desperate, and feel like there’s no food,” she said. “… I don’t know if there’s messaging around that we can do, or if you have any advice should we get to that point in our community.”
Martinez said his deputies would concentrate on assuring what may be a jittery public — shop owners wary of looters, homeowners afraid of burglars.
“There were so many moving parts when this first started,” Martinez said in a recent interview. “That aspect of it, the potential for panic, the potential for people to overflood, to overtake grocery stores. One of my first things as this was going on — the toilet paper shortage, and then the food shortage — I immediately dispatched deputies to local grocery stores. … That became the primary focus — to be seen, to be publicly seen so that they knew that law enforcement was out and about and we were here to keep the peace. That was a major tenet as we transitioned to different phases of this.”
Martinez said his office, the Park City Police Department and the Utah Highway Patrol had agreed to come to each others’ aid should a serious situation arise. Law enforcement officials also said they wanted to avoid unnecessary encounters with the public and minimize arrests.
“If we can issue them a citation and not put them in the jail, we’re not putting them in the jail,” Martinez said at the March 15 meeting. “… I cannot allow this virus to get into my facility.”
Martinez told other officials his department’s priorities during that meeting.
“We are going to watch their businesses and we are going to be really patrolling the grocery stores to prevent people from losing their minds,” he said. “They’re losing their minds already, but it could get worse before it gets better.”
‘I’m just glad we’re past a really tough point’
A year after those tense first days and weeks of the crisis, nearly every official expressed gratitude for the community’s contribution making the pandemic response happen. It was more than wearing a mask: Olson talked of a law firm willing to facilitate, for free, public defense for virtual court proceedings; members of the business community donated their time, spaces and money to the effort; deputies and teachers and other critical employees continued their work to ensure the county could function.
And while many restrictions remain in place, the COVID-19 vaccination campaign appears on the cusp of ushering in the era of “new normal.”
The work is not over for the county leaders tasked with managing the crisis, but there’s a sense of cautious optimism about where the pandemic is headed.
Young thanked the community for its patience during an unprecedented experience.
“We’re navigating this for the first time, too, and learning about the virus and how to keep people safe,” she said. “Ultimately we’re responsible for health, safety and welfare. That’s what shapes everything we do. And I’m just glad we’re past a really tough point.”
Bullough, who is nearing retirement, said the year was the most stressful of his professional career, but was thankful that he had the chance to play a role in the county’s response.
“As long as I live,” he said, “I’ll never forget that whirlwind of events and the emotion tied to it.”
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The CDC recommends vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings in Summit County, a step backward precipitated by the rise in cases tied to the more-transmissible Delta variant.