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The Colorado County With A Long History Of Shutting Itself Off To A Pandemic


During the devastating flu pandemic of 1918, the mountain town of Gunnison, Colo., shut itself off from the world to protect its residents. Fast-forward to coronavirus 2020 and Gunnison County has been hit hard. It's asking outsiders to stay away again. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Public health experts now call what Gunnison did a century ago protective sequestration. When the isolated mining town saw the deadly Spanish flu sweeping across America, it imposed extreme measures. For four months, residents were forbidden to leave, and travelers were turned away. Police erected barricades on the highway at Monarch Pass outside of town.

DUANE VANDENBUSCHE: Anybody trying to avoid the quarantine was arrested and put in jail.

BURNETT: Duane Vandenbusche is a history professor at Western Colorado University in the county seat of Gunnison.

VANDENBUSCHE: One of the travelers on a train that came into Gunnison in December of 1918, he said the conductor entered the coach and announced that any person who alighted from the train or even stepped on the platform would be escorted by an officer to quarantine.

BURNETT: Vandenbusche says Gunnison had no deaths, while neighboring towns that stayed open lost 10% of their populations to the illness. It was only after Gunnison began letting travelers in again that a few people got sick and died. Today, Gunnison County, Colo. - known as a haven for skiers, mountain bikers and rock climbers - has locked down again. They clamped down on public gatherings earlier than most places around the country, and they posted a sign on the highway - Gunnison County is closed. I asked C.J. Malcolm, chief of emergency services in the Gunnison Valley, if history is repeating itself.

C J MALCOLM: Hey, John, we got a reputation to uphold here, man.

BURNETT: But he says times have changed.

MALCOLM: We're not necessarily sending a sheriff to close Monarch Pass. That's the way it was done back then; that's not the way we can do it now. So now it's translating into healthy public messaging.

BURNETT: But the restrictions came too late. Some Western ski resorts that receive visitors from all over the country have become coronavirus hot spots. Gunnison County has 80 confirmed cases, giving it the highest infection rate per capita in the state. So far, 670 folks have self-reported COVID-19 symptoms, mostly mild. Fortunately, there's been only one death. Bewildered locals are getting used to the new normal here, just like they are all over America.

In Crested Butte, a picturesque resort town in the county, the main drag of Elk Avenue is deserted. Stephanie White manages a health food store there. She Facetimes me from inside the store.

STEPHANIE WHITE: So I'm walking down the aisles of Mountain Earth Organic Grocer. And our bulk section, we're out of garbanzo beans and black beans. We're out of several kinds of rice, quinoa.

BURNETT: White says there's a communitarian spirit to follow the rules and heal the town.

WHITE: This community is incredibly unique. And we talk about mountain people and being a mountain community, and so we have this sense of resiliency.

BURNETT: Because of the virus outbreak, last month, they had to cancel a beloved local ski race where people dress up in crazy costumes and hit the slopes. Still, people in this free-spirited town are trying to stay upbeat. Mark Reaman, editor of Crested Butte News, recently wrote an editorial that he reads from.

MARK REAMAN: (Reading) Reconnect with your kids or your spouse. Continue to get outside. It's a pretty nice place to be shut down in. Do not spend more than a few minutes mired in national news. Focus on the here. Make yourself smile, and take some deep breaths of the freshest air on the planet.

BURNETT: The headline on his commentary - this sucks; we are blessed.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.