Looking at a current map of Colorado with each county color-coded with its COVID-19 dial level, the state is a sea of orange (with a few shoals of yellow in Gunnison, Saguache and Jackson counties and red in Pitkin County). But just northeast of La Plata County, there’s an island of blue: Hinsdale County.
Hinsdale County, population 857 – about 400 of whom live in Lake City – has the lowest COVID-19 numbers in the state. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the county has recorded a total of 18 cases of the novel coronavirus among residents.
One might be tempted to attribute the low cases to the county’s remoteness. After all, despite the fact that La Plata and Hinsdale counties share a border, Lake City is a 3½-hour drive through South Fork from Durango. But Tara Hardy, director of public health with the Silver Thread Public Health District (which serves Hinsdale and Mineral counties), said this isn’t necessarily the case.
“Just because we’re remote doesn’t make us immune to things,” she said. “I mean, we still have people coming in and out, just not like we do in the summertime. ... Our population still travels to neighboring communities for groceries and whatnot.”
Instead, Hardy said the season is largely responsible for the Level Blue status.
“Our town pretty much shuts down itself anyway this time of year, so there’s not a whole lot of people here, there’s not a whole lot of things going on. The pinch points that could be potential risk factors aren’t there,” she said.
Given the season, not much of the town would be open anyway, said Katrina Kent-Menzies, executive director of the Lake City Chamber of Commerce.
“There isn’t any difference between what’s open now and what is typically open any other year in the winter,” she said. “As far as COVID goes, that’s not really affecting this time of the year.”
Hardy said the lack of places for people to gather makes contact tracing very easy if and when a case crops up.
The county’s 18 residential cases and five visitor cases have been spread out pretty evenly over time, she said. At the peak, four people had COVID-19 at the same time.
And it isn’t for lack of testing, which she said is being conducted with the same care as any other community in the state. Rather, the community has been conscious and proactive in dealing with the virus. The Lake City Community School has had the ability to teach students in-person since the start of the pandemic.
Lake City’s tourist season lasts from about June through about the first of October, Kent-Menzies said, but even then its businesses were as busy as normal or busier. All the retail businesses were open, as were the restaurants, albeit with limited capacity.
“I think everybody’s done really well, and the visitors have been excellent. Everybody wears a mask,” Kent-Menzies said. “It worked out fine.”
Tourism in Hinsdale County, which is about 96.5% public land, is based largely on outdoor recreation. The main difference this year is that instead of Texas and Oklahoma, like normal, many of the tourists arrived from Colorado’s own Front Range, Kent-Menzies said.
The element of Lake City most affected by COVID-19 was its event calendar. Almost every event was canceled, with the exception of the Silver Thread Adventure Rally, which is based around outdoor recreation and is paired with a barbecue competition. The Fourth of July celebration, which usually draws between 4,000 and 5,000 people to Lake City’s downtown park, was reduced to just fireworks this year, she said.
Despite this, and the lingering shadow of COVID-19, the city and county are actively welcoming visitors.
“Outdoor adventure tourism is what makes our economy thrive here. The business owners depend on it in the summer. We actually kind of encourage people to try to maybe look at coming to visit in the winter as well. Mid- to late January until April, we have a ski hill, we have an ice climb wall, we have over 100 miles of snowmobile trail. There’s all kinds of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and ice skating and ice fishing and things to do in the winter,” Kent-Menzies said. “As long as people continue to do things the way they have been, as long as we’re having to make the changes around COVID, then I think we’ll be fine.”