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ERIE, Colo. — Whenever Larry Kelderman looks up from the car he’s fixing and peers across the street, he’s looking across a border. His town of 28,000 straddles two counties, separated by County Line Road.
Kelderman’s auto repair business is in Boulder County, whose officials are sticklers for public health and have topped the county website with instructions on how to report COVID violations. Kelderman lives in Weld County, where officials refuse to enforce public health rules.
Weld County’s test positivity rate is twice that of its neighbor, but Kelderman is pretty clear which side he backs.
“Which is worse, the person gets the virus and survives and they still have a business, or they don’t get the virus and they lose their livelihood?” he said.
Boulder boasts one of the most highly educated populations in the nation; Weld boasts about its sugar beets, cattle and thousands of oil and gas wells. Summer in Boulder County means concerts featuring former members of the Grateful Dead; in Weld County, it’s rodeo time. Boulder voted for Biden, Weld for Trump. Per capita income in Boulder is nearly 50% higher than in Weld.
Even their COVID outbreaks are different: In Boulder County, the virus swirls around the University of Colorado. In Weld County, some of the worst outbreaks have swept through meatpacking plants.
It’s not the first time County Line Road has been a fault line.
“I’ve been in politics seven years and there’s always been a conflict between the two counties,” said Jennifer Carroll, mayor of Erie, once a coal mining town and now billed as a good place to raise a family, about 30 minutes north of Denver.
Shortly before the coronavirus hit Colorado, Erie’s board of trustees extended a moratorium on new oil and gas operations in the town. Weld County was not pleased.
“They got really angry at us for doing that, because oil and gas is their thing,” Carroll said.
Most of the town’s businesses are on the Weld side. To avoid public health whiplash, Carroll and other town leaders have asked residents to comply with the more restrictive stance of the Boulder side.
The feud got ugly in a dispute over hospital beds. At one point, the state said Weld County had only three intensive care beds, while Weld County claimed it had 43.
“It made my job harder, because people were doubting what I was saying,” said Carroll. “Nobody trusted anyone because they were hearing conflicting information.”
Weld’s number, it turned out, included not just the beds in its two hospitals, but also those in 10 other hospitals across the county line, including in the city of Longmont.
Longmont sits primarily in Boulder County but spills into Weld, where its suburbs taper into fields pockmarked with prairie dog holes. Its residents say they can tell snow is coming when the winds deliver a pungent smell of livestock from next door. Longmont Mayor Brian Bagley worried that Weld’s behavior would deliver more than a stench: It might also deliver patients requiring precious resources.
“They were basically encouraging their citizens to violate the emergency health orders … with this cowboy-esque, you know, ‘Yippee-ki-yay, freedom, Constitution forever, damn the consequences,’” said Bagley. “Their statement is, ‘Our hospitals are full, but don’t worry, we’re just going to use yours.’”
So, “for 48 hours, I trolled Weld County,” he said. Bagley asked the city council to consider an ordinance that could have restricted Weld County residents’ ability to receive care at Longmont hospitals. Bagley, who retracted his proposal the next day, said he knew it was never going to come to fruition — after all, it was probably illegal — but he wanted to prove a point.
“They’re going to be irresponsible? Fine. Let me propose a question,” he said. “If there is only one ICU bed left and there are two grandparents there — one from Weld, one from Boulder — and they both need that bed, who should get it?”
Weld County commissioners volleyed back, calling Bagley a “simple mayor.” They wrote that the answer to the pandemic was “not to continually punish working-class families or the individuals who bag your groceries, wait on you in restaurants, deliver food to your home while you watch Netflix and chill.”
“I know we’re all trying to get along, but people are starting to do stupid and mean things and so I’ll be stupid and mean back,” Bagley said during a Dec. 8 council meeting.
In another Longmont City Council meeting, Bagley (who suspects the commissioners don’t know what “Netflix and chill” typically means) often referred to Weld simply as “our neighbors to the East,” declining to name his foe. The council shrugged off his statement about withholding medical treatment but demanded that Weld County step up to fight the pandemic.
“We would not deny medical care to anybody. It’s illegal and it’s immoral,” said council member Polly Christensen. “But it is wrong for people to expect us to bear the burden of what they’ve been irresponsible enough to let loose.”
“They’re the reason why I can’t be in the classroom in front of my kids,” said council member and teacher Susie Hidalgo-Fahring, whose school district straddles the counties. “I’m done with that. Everybody needs to be a good neighbor.”
The council decided Dec. 15 to send a letter to Weld County’s commissioners encouraging them to enforce state restrictions and to make a public statement about the benefits of wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. They’ve also backed a law allowing Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to withhold relief money from counties that don’t comply with restrictions.
Weld County Commissioner Scott James said his county doesn’t have the authority to enforce public health orders any more than a citizen has the authority to give a speeding ticket.
“If you want me as an elected official to assume authority that I don’t have and arbitrarily exert it over you, I dare you to look that up in the dictionary,” said James, who is a rancher turned country radio host. “It’s called tyranny.”
James doesn’t deny that COVID-19 is ravaging his community. “We’re on fire, and we need to put that fire out,” he said. But he believes that individuals will make the right decisions to protect others, and demands the right of his constituents to use the hospital nearest them.
“To look at Weld County like it has walls around it is shortsighted and not the way our health care system is designed to work,” James said. “To use a crudity, because I am, after all, just a ranch kid turned radio guy, there’s no ‘non-peeing’ section in the pool. Everybody’s gonna get a little on ’em. And that’s what’s going on right now with COVID.”
The dispute is not just liberal and conservative politics clashing. Bagley, the Longmont mayor, grew up in Weld County and “was a Republican up until Trump,” he said. But it is an example of how the virus is tapping into long-standing Western strife.
“There’s decades of reasons for resentment at people from a distance — usually from a metropolis and from a state or federal governmental office — telling rural people what to do,” said Patty Limerick, faculty director at the Center of the American West at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and previously state historian.
In the ’90s, she toured several states performing a mock divorce trial between the rural and urban West. She played Urbana Asphalt West, married to Sandy Greenhills West. Their child, Suburbia, was indulged and clueless and had a habit of drinking everyone else’s water. A rural health care shortage was one of many fuels of their marital strife.
Limerick and her colleagues are reviving the play now and adding COVID references. This time around, she said, it’ll be a last-ditch marriage counseling session for high school classes and communities to adopt and perform. It likely won’t have a scripted ending; she’s leaving that up to each community.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.
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Rae Ellen Bichell
Kaiser Health News
Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.