I’m writing this on April 1, 2020.
In past years – and hopefully going forward – April Fool’s Day in Jackson Hole has exuded levity, best captured by the Jackson Hole ski area’s annual “Gaper Day.”
Today, though, it’s gray and a bit raw outside, an apt metaphor for COVID-19’s effects on our community, nation, and planet.
In such times, many folks turn to government for guidance, for it’s government’s job to consider society’s overall welfare. Due to a combination of human nature, the structure of our legal system, and the unprecedented challenges posed by the COVID-19 outbreak, though, it’s clear that, like any human institution, government at any level can do only so much.
Despite these limitations, being a town councilor requires me to step into this breach of limitations and do the best I can. A critical part of that is keeping constituents informed about what’s going on – hence these newsletters.
It’s not clear what the long-term consequences of the COVID-19 outbreak will be. As we work through the situation, though, my fundamental pledge to the greater Jackson Hole community – not just to Town of Jackson residents, but to all those who care about the Tetons region – is to be honest, open, and consistent. As I understand leadership, we should demand nothing less from anyone who asks for our support.
How much my efforts will help isn’t clear. At a minimum, though, I hope they will make at least a small contribution to helping all of us – individually and collectively – weather this storm with grace, and emerge Phoenix-like into a very bright future.
Please stay healthy, and help others stay healthy by practicing good distancing.
Wishing you all the best,
|COVID-19 and This E-Newsletter In this newsletter, I cover two basic topics: the present and the future. The former looks at what the Town of Jackson has done regarding COVID-19 and public health; the latter looks at the pivot we need to make to the community’s socio-economic health.|
For those looking for more information about COVID-19 in Teton County, there are two great on-line resources: jhcovid.com is a clearinghouse of information about everything COVID-related in Jackson Hole, including resources for those needing help.The Teton County Emergency Management COVID Response Overview offers a dashboard of the latest statistics about how the disease is affecting our community.
|The Present As is likely true for you, my last few weeks have been a blur. Looking at my calendar, Jackson’s Town Council got an overview about COVID-19 on March 2, but didn’t focus on the subject directly until a special meeting on Thursday, March 12. In the 20 days since, we’ve held eight additional emergency sessions. Throw in preparation and other related duties, and dealing with COVID-19 has become essentially a full-time job.|
Yet the time and energy I’ve put into dealing with COVID-19 pales in comparison to that put in by Jackson Hole’s remarkable team of public employees. Our community has been extraordinarily well-served by not just the Town of Jackson’s employees, but all those working for Teton County’s government, Jackson Hole’s numerous state and federal agencies, and the employees of St. John’s Health and other health care providers.
The Town of Jackson’s shelter in place order
Since our March 12 meeting, the Town Council’s focus has been on the emergent public health threat posed by COVID-19. This culminated on Saturday, March 28, when the council unanimously passed an emergency “shelter in place” ordinance.
The Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz famously coined the term “fog of war”, writing: “War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.”
I don’t know whether I possess a sensitive and discriminating judgment or a skilled intelligence. I do know that because the entire COVID-19 situation is profoundly fluid, the “fog of war” concept has been front of mind for me during these past few weeks.
Before voting for the rather-draconian shelter in place ordinance, I developed five questions I needed to have answered to my satisfaction. They and their answers were:
Q1: What do we hope to accomplish?
A: To keep Jackson Hole’s public health system from being overwhelmed and collapsing.
Q2: Was the situation truly emergent?
A: Yes. Jackson Hole’s first case of COVID-19 disease was confirmed March 18. Were it to spread exponentially, as it has in many places, it could overwhelm Jackson Hole’s public health system.
Q3: Would shelter in place be effective?
(I asked this question because before taking any dramatic action, it’s vital to properly calibrate expectations)
A: We aren’t 100% certain, but both Teton County’s Public Health Officer and every other health care professional I contacted said that limiting physical interactions was the best available tool for slowing the spread of COVID-19.
That noted, there is no guarantee of how effective it will be. Similarly, passing an ordinance affecting just the Town of Jackson was clearly not the best way of achieving our goal – instead, the entire county needs to shelter in place. But because a county-wide order can only come from the state or federal government, and because last Saturday neither appeared willing to take that step, the Town Council was left with the choice of either using this one tool available to us or doing nothing at all.
Q4: Can we effectively enforce this ordinance?
A: In a word, “no.”
So why do it? Because of the message it sends. I believe that if people know the right thing to do, they’ll do it. In this case, every piece of evidence suggests sheltering in place is that right thing. To that end, a sheltering in place ordinance is the most powerful tool the Town Council has for conveying this message.
Q5: What will this cost?
A: The Town of Jackson gets around 80% of its operating revenues from sales and lodging taxes. By taking this step, we know our revenues will suffer. More importantly, so too will the revenues of essentially every business in Jackson Hole.
So why do it? Because by taking these extreme measures now – and it’s extraordinarily fortuitous we’re entering into the spring shoulder season – it’s likely we’ll avoid much the more severe and longer-lasting damage that will occur if the pandemic goes unchecked. Put another way, however difficult this ounce of prevention might prove, it’s likely going to be worth at least a pound of cure.
Having reached these conclusions, I supported our emergency shelter in place ordinance.
Which, as it turned out, was in effect only 72 hours. The fog-of-war irony here was that, three days after the Town Council passed it, our shelter in place resolution was rendered moot by a similar order issued by Travis Riddell, MD, Teton County’s Public Health Officer. On March 28, the State of Wyoming appeared to be resisting approving Dr. Riddell’s request. On March 31, they changed their minds. Such is the fluidity of the COVID-19 situation.
The town and future public health efforts
In passing the town-wide “shelter in place” ordinance, the Town of Jackson used what may be the last major public health tool available to us under Wyoming law (not anticipating anything like COVID-19, Wyoming’s Constitution is basically silent on how such situations might be handled).
As a result, barring something completely unanticipated (which, of course, is the order of the day with COVID-19), it appears the town government has done about all it can do to protect its citizens’ health – any future actions will have to come from the state or federal governments.
Based on this belief, I’m turning my focus to the future, namely two questions:How will the community get through the economic hard times that are just beginning?What kind of community will we be when we emerge?
Before addressing those questions, though, let me close on an upbeat note.
Good news on the COVID-19 front
On Saturday, March 28, St. John’s Health (the hospital formerly known as St. John’s Medical Center) received word it could transfer critically ill patients to the HCA hospital system in Salt Lake City. This is great news, for it significantly decreases the chance of St. John’s getting overwhelmed by not just those ill with COVID-19, but other patients whose healthcare might be compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Combine the HCA backstop with the community’s shelter in place efforts, and the chances for a truly horrible COVID-19-related outcome seem to be reduced. Not gone – not by any means. But certainly reduced, and likely at a meaningful level.
|The Future In my last newsletter, I mentioned that, as I’ve come to see it, every community is constantly but implicitly balancing its physical and socio-economic health. Historians will look back on March, 2020, as the month when the planet tipped heavily to the physical health side.|
This imbalance can’t last, of course, but before any future equilibrium can be re-established, the world will have to hit four public health benchmarks. In chronological order, they are:Infection rates will have to peak and markedly declineTesting will have to become so widespread as to be essentially ubiquitousAn effective treatment will have to be developedHerd immunization will have to be established through the development of a vaccine and/or enough people developing immunity by contracting and recovering from the disease.
It’s not clear how soon any of these benchmarks will be hit. What is clear is that until Benchmark #4 is achieved, society will remain vulnerable to significant COVID-19-related disruptions.
Currently, the best guess is that it will take 18 months or so to hit Benchmark #4; i.e., to develop and deploy an effective vaccine. As a result, even after the world weathers the blow of the current, initial pandemic, significant COVID-19-related public health concerns will continue well into 2021, if not beyond.
In the meantime, Jackson Hole also faces socio-economic health concerns. Here’s what I’m trying to do on that front.
Two basic beliefs
I bring two basic beliefs into my efforts.
First, the COVID-19 situation is truly unprecedented. As a result, collectively we have no clear idea what to think or do. As a further result, we’re reduced to acting and reacting based on hunches, anxiety, and fear. Until we can get past that, we’ll remain stuck in a very difficult place.
Second, the secret to solving a problem is accurately framing it. Our COVID-19-based challenges are no different – before we can solve this unprecedented problem, we first need to develop a way to accurately frame it.
One part of the solution will be frequent, consistent, and accurate communication among ourselves. Another will be structuring that communication within a common framework. Using the metaphor of a jigsaw puzzle, if we can systematically begin gathering individual pieces of information about the community, we can begin solving the larger puzzle. As we do, we’ll gain a better understanding of how COVID-19 is affecting our community, which in turn can serve as the foundation of our response to the situation.
My model of Jackson Hole’s economy
As I note above, roughly 75% of the Town of Jackson’s general revenue comes from sales taxes, and another 5% from lodging taxes. Because COVID-19 is shutting down the businesses that generate those taxes, it’s clear the town’s revenues are going to take a hit.
But how big a hit? Rather than speculate, I’ve built a model of Jackson Hole’s taxable economy, one I hope will provide the entire community with a common reference point for understanding the magnitude of our current and coming COVID-19-related economic challenges.
The model is currently in beta testing. Once finalized, my plan is to share it with local business and thought leaders, asking them to weigh in on its variables (which include time periods, industries, and spending by both tourists and locals).
By reaching out to enough knowledgeable people, my hope is to develop a collective consensus of where our economy might be headed over the next year-plus. Once that’s clear, we can then shift from worrying about the future to developing a collective approach to addressing it.
I’ve designed the model to be easily updatable with new economic data. As a result, it should be able to give local leaders – public, private, and non-profit – a sense of where things are going.
How much clarity it can offer isn’t clear, but my hope is that even a little bit can help us cut through our current fog of war.