By Chris Mannara
The impact that the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) was provided to the Rotary Club of Pagosa Springs on May 7.
“It’s been extremely hard for us as far as the sheriff’s office, primarily because it’s a pandemic, it’s a health and safety issue,” Sheriff Rich Valdez said. “It’s not like someone is running down the street with a gun. We know where we’d have to go for that.”
The ACSO is in a challenging situation because it is the one who has to enforce any of the public health orders from either Gov. Jared Polis or San Juan Basin Public Health, he explained, adding that it has been a “learning curve” for the ACSO.
Valdez also explained that the ACSO, following the activation of its emergency operations center (EOC), has been involved with multiple other local and regional entities as part of multiagency coordination to discuss best practices in handling the pandemic.
“Everybody played a role and has to play a role in it,” he said. “We put our organization into action and started recognizing the resources that we had available within our community so that we had that opportunity to utilize those resources if needed.”
When a critical incident is started, 90 percent of available resources are put toward that incident in question, Valdez explained, adding that, at a certain point, resources can be expended quickly.
“We didn’t want to get in that position, so what we opted is we started early, we put our resources out there in the front that we knew were available and we pulled everything back that we didn’t have to use until we knew we were going to have to use them if a major surge hit the county,” he said.
At the same time the EOC was activated, the ACSO began practicing social distancing and having staff work from home who could, he explained further.
“We separated individuals, we started wearing face masks, we started sanitizing. We went into schedules way before the orders actually came into effect,” he said. “We wanted to maintain a safe and healthy environment for me and my staff.”
The ACSO even began minimizing its self-initiated contacts, Valdez explained further.
Enforcement has also provided its own set of challenges, Valdez added later.
“We are getting inundated with information and some of that information contradicts each other, so we’re in the middle trying to vet those and try to make sure that any information that we get out to the public is the correct information,” he said.
Valdez noted that the ACSO has even received calls that it should shut down the border to New Mexico.
“Obviously that’s not going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to shut down the borders. We felt that everything was good. Also, we don’t have the authority to shut down borders.”
Archuleta County has done research with San Juan Basin Public Health, but “nothing really definitive” has been found in terms of when there could be a surge of cases locally, Valdez explained.
“I think that’s one of the big reasons why the county commissioners opted to go ahead and follow the governor’s order rather than stay with something more strict, because I don’t think they quite had the data as to whether or not we’re going to have a surge now, or are we going to have a surge in December?” he said.
The ACSO and the county are anticipating a decline in revenue, Valdez noted, adding that the ACSO is on a hiring freeze.
However, the ACSO is doing well and things are “going great,” Valdez explained, adding praise for the citizens of Archuleta County.
“I really believe that by our community coming together and actually honoring the social distancing, and staying at home, and minimizing their contact, and being safe, and washing hands, and wearing masks and doing all that, I think that’s the real big reason why we’re only at eight confirmed cases,” he said. “The more cases that are out there, obviously the harder it’s going to be for us.”
Also at the meeting, Valdez gave an update on the construction of a new jail and when the ACSO will be moving into its new office space at 125 Harman Park Drive.
“We’re happy to announce that they accepted a bid for our new office space,” he said. “The office space construction is in contract right now, and hopefully, they’re getting the order to proceed.”
Valdez noted that the office space construction would take place starting on May 11.
The jail construction was described as being “on track” by Valdez, who added that, as of May 7, the jail was 83.1 percent completed and would be ready by July 10.
Additionally, Valdez explained that when the ACSO moves in to the new facility in July, the ACSO will get acquainted with the new facility and have any requests given to the contractors.
“Once those fixes are done, we will go to a secure,” Valdez said of the facility. “We will start transporting inmates from La Plata County and we will slowly start bringing them back in.”
The process of bringing inmates back into Archuleta County will be a challenge as well, as the ACSO does not want to bring 40 inmates into the county all at once, he explained.
“We will bring them in a couple at a time as we start moving forward,” he said, adding that all inmates would be in the new secure facility by the end of August or the first part of September.
The staffing levels that the ACSO currently has for the jail is going to be a challenge in regard to making sure the ACSO has three detention officers on duty at all times, as well as for the kitchen staff.
“We got to make sure to see how we can get some assistance in some other staffing areas for the kitchen,” he said.