ERIE, Colo. – Whenever Larry Kelderman looks up from the car he is repairing and looks across the street, he’s looking over a boundary. His city of 28,000 people spans two counties separated by the County Line Road.
Kelderman’s auto repair business is in Boulder County, whose public health officials have posted instructions on how to report COVID violations on the county website. Kelderman lives in Weld County, where officials refuse to enforce public health regulations.
Weld County’s test positivity rate is twice that of its neighbor, but Kelderman is pretty clear which side he’s on.
“What’s 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 has one of the most educated populations in the nation. Weld boasts of its sugar beets, cattle, and thousands of oil and gas wells. Summer in Boulder County means concerts with former members of the Grateful Dead; Weld County is rodeo time. Boulder voted for Biden, Weld for Trump. The per capita income in Boulder is almost 50% higher than in Weld.
Even their COVID outbreaks are different: in Boulder County, the virus is swirling around the University of Colorado. In Weld County, some of the worst outbreaks have hit meat packers.
It’s not the first time County Line Road has been a fault line.
“I’ve been in politics seven years and there has always been a conflict between the two counties,” said Jennifer Carroll, Mayor of Erie, once a mining town and now a good place to raise a family, about 30 minutes north of Denver .
Just before the coronavirus hit Colorado, Erie’s board of trustees extended a moratorium on new oil and gas operations in the city. Weld County wasn’t pleased.
“They got really mad at us because oil and gas are their thing,” said Carroll.
Most of the city’s stores are on the Weld side. To avoid public health whiplash injury, Carroll and other city guides have asked residents to adhere to the more restrictive stance on the Boulder side.
The feud turned ugly in a dispute over hospital beds. At one point, the state said Weld County only had three critical care beds, while Weld County claimed it had 43.
“It made my job more difficult because people doubted what I was saying,” said Carroll. “Nobody trusted someone because they heard contradicting information.”
It found that Weld’s number included not only beds in his two hospitals, but also those in 10 other hospitals across the county line, including in Longmont town.
Longmont is primarily in Boulder County but drains into Weld, where its suburbs taper into fields dotted with prairie dog holes. Residents say they can tell snow is coming when the wind next door gives off a pungent smell of cattle. Brian Bagley, Mayor of Longmont, feared that Weld’s behavior would create more than just a stink: it could also care for patients in need of valuable resources.
“They basically encouraged their citizens to break emergency health regulations … with that cowboy style, you know, ‘Yippee-ki-yay, freedom, constitution forever, damn the consequences,'” Bagley said. “Your statement is, ‘Our hospitals are full, but don’t worry, we’ll only be using yours.'”
So “I trolled Weld County for 48 hours,” he said. Bagley asked the city council to consider an ordinance that could have restricted Weld County’s ability to be cared for in Longmont hospitals. Bagley, who withdrew his proposal the next day, said he knew it would never materialize – it was probably illegal after all – but he wanted to prove a point.
“Are you going to be irresponsible? Fine. Let me suggest a question, ”he said. “If there’s only one ICU bed left and there are two grandparents – one from Weld, one from Boulder – and both need the bed, who should get it?”
Weld County commissioners resigned and called Bagley a “simple mayor.” They wrote that the answer to the pandemic was, “Working class families, or the people who wrap your groceries, wait for you in restaurants and deliver groceries to your home while you watch Netflix and relax, don’t constantly punish you.”
“I know we are all trying to get along, but people start doing stupid and mean things and that’s why I’ll be stupid and mean back,” Bagley said during a council meeting on December 8th.
At another meeting of Longmont City Council, Bagley (who suspects the commissioners don’t know what “Netflix and Chill” usually means) often referred to Weld simply as “our eastern neighbors” and refused to call his enemy. The council shrugged off its testimony of withholding medical treatment, but called on Weld County to work to fight the pandemic.
“We wouldn’t deny anyone medical care. It’s illegal and immoral, ”said Councilor Polly Christensen. “But it is wrong for people to expect us to shoulder the burden of what they were irresponsible enough to let go.”
“You’re the reason I can’t be in the classroom in front of my kids,” said councilor and teacher Susie Hidalgo-Fahring, whose school district spans the counties. “I’m done with that. Everyone has to be a good neighbor. “
The council decided on Dec. 15 to send a letter to Weld County commissioners calling on them to enforce state restrictions and to make a public statement about the benefits of wearing masks and practicing physical distancing. They also supported a law that allows Democratic governor Jared Polis Withhold aid from counties that do not comply with restrictions.
Weld County commissioner Scott James said his county no longer has the authority to enforce public health orders than a citizen has the authority to give a parking ticket.
“If you want me to take authority as an elected official that I don’t have and exercise it arbitrarily on you, I dare you look it up in the dictionary,” said James, a rancher who became a country radio host. “It’s called tyranny.”
James doesn’t deny that COVID-19 is devastating his community. “We are on fire and we must put out the fire,” he said. However, he believes that individuals will make the right decisions to protect others and demands the right of his constituents to use the hospital closest to them.
“Looking at Weld County like it has walls is myopic and not the way our healthcare system works,” James said. “To use a rudeness, because I’m just a ranch kid turned radio operator, there’s no area in the pool that you can’t pee in. Everyone will get a little on it. And that’s exactly what is happening with COVID right now. “
The dispute is not just a clash of liberal and conservative politics. Bagley, the Mayor of Longmont, grew up in Weld County and “was a Republican until Trump,” he said. But it’s an example of how the virus is sparking longstanding western conflict.
“There have been decades of resentment against people remotely – usually from a metropolis and from a state or state government office – telling rural residents 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.
She toured multiple states in the 1990s, going through a divorce litigation between the rural and urban west. She played Urbana Asphalt West, married to Sandy Greenhills West. Her child, Suburbia, was spoiled and clueless and had a habit of drinking everyone else’s water. A lack of rural health care was one of the many reasons for their marital struggle.
Limerick and her colleagues are now reviving the piece and adding COVID references. This time, she said, it will be a final marriage counseling session for high school classes and communities to adopt and conduct. There probably won’t be a scripted ending. She leaves that to each community.
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