Boulder County residents grapple with pandemic more than two months after coronavirus appeared in area

Boulder County residents grapple with pandemic more than two months after coronavirus appeared in area

It all happened so fast.

The front page of the Monday, March 9 edition of the Daily Camera carried no mention of a new coronavirus that was causing the illness known globally as COVID-19. Featured stories were about a new science grant, a murder sentencing set for that day and efforts to aid an endangered fish species.

A brief item at the bottom of the front page touted Nederland’s upcoming Frozen Dead Guy Days.

Before the end of the week, the life that page portrayed was, itself, frozen in place or canceled by the pandemic that cast its invisible net over every aspect of the life people hold familiar.

The next day’s page one carried word of government officials taking a range of precautionary steps in the face of the spread of the disease. And by that Wednesday, news coverage was dominated by Gov. Jared Polis’s declaration the previous day of a state of emergency. Before the end of the week, the long list of cancellations of nearly every thread in the fabric of everyday existence was growing rapidly.

Frozen Dead Guys Days was the least of it.

After 59 deaths in Boulder County, over 900 people sickened and and thousands at the local level put out of work at least temporarily by widespread business closures, it is virtually impossible to find someone not directly affected by the greatest health crisis of the modern era.

From health care workers to first responders to educators forced to finish their years teaching over a computer screen to personal services workers required to meet their customers curbside to the many who can do little more than wait for the life they knew to — maybe — come back to them, few stories are the same.

And everybody has one.

Nurse begins career at start of pandemic

Frazier senior living Registered Nurse Ashley Stenzel stands outside of the senior living community on Wednesday in Boulder. Stenzel began her nursing career in February, just in time for thepandemic to take hold in Boulder County. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Long-term care facilities have represented the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic for Boulder County. And Ashley Stenzel is among those who have been there throughout.

Stenzel, a 25-year-old Broomfield resident, is a registered nurse at Boulder’s Frasier retirement community, assigned to its Summit Care Center, which is its nursing, rehabilitation and long-term care floors.

She had worked at Frasier since 2017 as a certified nursing assistant, but obtained her nursing license in February — just in time to step into that role as the coronavirus was poised to attack.

“That’s an understatement,” Stenzel said, when asked if it was a challenging introduction to this new phase of her career.

She has measured up and more, according to Frasier Director of Nursing Kim Calahan, who said, “Ashley’s commitment and dedication to our residents is inspiring, especially during these unprecedented, challenging times.”

To date, 78% of Boulder County’s COVID-19 dead have been residents of long-term care facilities. Frasier itself has seen no deaths and very few infections. Still, Stenzel has lived with the worry that she could be the one who might infect someone.

“I am sure a lot of nurses in many medical settings share the sentiment that I go to work with, the concern that I am endangering my patients… I have had this underlying fear: What if it’s me who brings the virus into this facility?”

She is not married and has no children, and has taken stay-at-home directives very much to heart.

“When I go to the grocery store, I buy $300 worth of groceries at a time — nonperishables and frozen, so I can avoid leaving the house. Just to avoid my own exposure,” Stenzel said. “I do feel like I have a stronger obligation than most people to observe the governor’s orders.”

A very difficult part of her job in the past 10 weeks has been seeing the sadness of families who are denied any immediate contact with their elderly family members as a safety precaution.

“That has been a little bit heart-wrenching to witness, having all of my patients not able to interact with their loved ones,” she said. “They have not been able to hug their mother or their father — that has been a difficult thing to navigate. That has given me a purpose. I am effectively their family right now. And I’m doing the best that I can for them.”

— Charlie Brennan

Case manager fears possible bump in substance abuse

Michelle Webb, manager of Longmont’s Public Safety Diversion Programs, poses for a portrait outside the Safety and Justice Center in Longmont on Thursday. She said she and her team are preparing for an even greater increase in need for the services they provide than they already have seen. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Michelle Webb looks forward to the day when Longmont public safety case managers can once again meet face-to-face with all the people seeking help through diversion programs.

Webb, the manager of Public Safety Diversion Programs, said “it’s been a challenging time.” The pandemic has created issues, likely to ripple through the community long after the coronavirus disappears.

“We are definitely seeing an increased need related to substance abuse and mental health,” Webb said. “We are starting to prepare for what we think will be an even greater need for services.”

The six case managers on staff, who help people in need find access to housing, jobs and substance and mental health treatment, have had to shift their formerly hands-on work. Case managers are meeting in person with only about 25% of higher-need clients. About 50% of clients are being contacted remotely and the remaining 25% have stopped communicating, Webb said.

The Longmont Department of Public Safety has four diversion programs. There’s the Angel Initiative, which connects people with substance abuse issues to treatment resources; Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, a tool that police officers use to help people who struggle with addiction avoid arrest and get connected to help; Crisis Outreach and Response Engagement, a team of health and police professionals who responds to those experiencing mental health issues and Community Health, which works with local hospitals to help those at a high-risk for medical readmission have access to care.

Out in the Longmont community, Webb said the diversion programs have seen need increase, but in a way that was different in contrast to the pre-COVID-19 world.

Last week, LEAD saw six referrals — a record number, given the program usually sees six referrals a month. CORE saw a 20% increase in referrals over the past month, which Webb said is “substantial.” She added that the number of referrals CORE has seen involve new cases. Before the pandemic, she said the majority of CORE cases, were people the program had already worked with. During the pandemic, Webb said roughly 70% of CORE’s cases are new.

“What that means is people who were previously stable and had coping mechanisms and who were doing well pre-pandemic are now experiencing far greater levels of stress that are inducing crisis,” Webb said.

The amount of need is a sign of the work to come in the months ahead.

“We are anticipating there will be a bottleneck (for substance abuse treatment programs) once we get to the other side, once things start opening up,” Webb said. “It’s going to be quite some time before everybody who wants to get into treatment can.”

— Kelsey Hammon

Fitness center owner finds way to serve clients

Jason Busch feels he is doing everything he can to keep his Boulder fitness studio, Body Balance Strength & Wellness, as safe as possible to host clients during the pandemic.

Body Balance Strength and Wellness owner Jason Busch stands inside his gym on Thursday in Boulder. Busch has been able to reopen to the public because the number of people who visit daily is limited, but he hopes there will be more guidance soon for other, more crowded fitness centers and businesses. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

It has paid off.

While large health clubs featuring shared workout equipment remain closed under Colorado’s latest public health orders, small-scale personal training, with groups of no more than four people, has been able to resume.

Busch feels his business, which mostly helps people rehabilitate their ranges of motion and strength of body parts after injuries, is sustainable under the current limitations. But he hopes other fitness services in Boulder that remain closed receive some guidance from the government on a reopening plan soon, because he believes business owners can be trusted to run their workplaces safely while hosting some in-person activity at this point.

Busch has started treating his space with an ozone machine and ultraviolet light at night, since there is a chance that each of those may inhibit the virus, though he acknowledged there may not be enough evidence of that effect.

Body Balance has also cordoned off sections of its space to limit trainers and the clients they’re working with from infringing on social distance of others, with no more than 10 people allowed in at a time.

“I’ve had clients that I haven’t seen in years, after we posted up on Instagram everything we’re doing to keep the gym safe. Clients have been like, ‘I’m coming back, because you guys are doing it right,’” Busch said.

But he has been frustrated by scrutiny he assumes has come from the public strolling by his studio with ground-level windows. As a result of what he believes were worries generated by community members noticing human activity in the studio recently — Busch said there was almost none outside of his own for weeks during the stricter shutdown phase this spring — the business has had to field calls from local authorities inquiring whether it was operating properly under the safer-at-home guidance.

Construction paper now covers the windows.

“Home Depot, Target, McGuckins are open. The risk isn’t here, it’s there,” Busch said. “If I get 20 people a day that come into my facility from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., that’s a tiny fraction, compared to the 20 people every five minutes that go into Home Depot.”

— Sam Lounsberry

Providing peace of mind

University of Colorado HVAC technician Jesus Puentes stands in front of Folsom Field on Thursday in Boulder. Puentes takes pride in the peace of mind he can offer other employees who can’t come to work, knowing that he is caring for their equipment and facilities. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, Jesus Puentes was proud of being an essential worker at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Puentes, 31, is an HVAC technician and has worked on campus for five years. He does service calls on the university’s research equipment, making sure nothing critical goes down — and if something does happen in a server room or laser laboratory, he works to minimize the damage.

“I take pride in giving people peace of mind that even though they can’t be here, their stuff is being taken care of,” Puentes said.

One of the biggest changes caused by coronavirus is no longer seeing his coworkers and friends every day. The shop of 12 people used to spend lunches and break times together, laughing and talking.

Morale has taken a hit because of that, Puentes said, but he’s trying to have lunch with one person every few days while still practicing social distancing.

Beyond that, he spends most days working on his own, trying to minimize how much time he spends in empty campus buildings in order to minimize the risk of spreading the virus. He cleans everything he touches before and after he starts a job.

“I want people to know that we’re trying to take care of them and us,” he said.

Puentes lives in Frederick with his wife, who is a respiratory therapist and also an essential worker, and their three children.

“We get home, we take all of our stuff off and we try to keep our distance from the kids until we’re able to shower,” Puentes said. “We’re trying to find this new routine — and everyone’s dealing with it — to get this routine down and trying to keep the family safe.”

The pandemic has been hard on his children, Puentes said, with the sudden switch to all online, remote learning and no longer seeing friends.

With both parents still working outside of the house, Puentes said he’s thankful that his mother-in-law is able to stay home and help the children with school. It’s still been a big learning curve, though.

“We have a lot of friends that have kids, so trying to explain it to the kids that they can’t have all these playdates that they used to has been tough, and keeping them busy so they’re not missing those experiences,” Puentes said. “It’s hard trying to explain it to the little ones because they don’t understand what’s going on.”

Puentes and his family are also finding ways to have fun, he said. They’re growing vegetables from seed for the first time and built garden beds to expand their growing space.

Before long, the tomatillos will be ripe and the salsa will start flowing — a simple joy that not even a pandemic can take away.

— Katie Langford

Delicately balancing safety, justice

Deputy State Public Defender Nicole Collins stands inside the Office of the State Public Defender on Tuesday in Boulder. Attorneys working in the office are working hard to find ways to maintain contact with clients without the possibility of seeing them in court. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Due to restrictions at the Boulder County Justice Center to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus, court hearings have been few and far between this spring.

But even in the middle of a pandemic, the job of a defense attorney never stops. With the staff of Boulder Public Defender’s Office now largely working remotely, attorneys have been busy working to reschedule hearings, to keep in contact with clients and to take on new cases while also dealing with restrictions that have delayed hearings and limited their access to the Boulder County Jail.

“The only person we have right now is one administrative person answering phone calls from the jails and transferring them to the lawyers’ cell phones,” said Nicole Collins, the managing public defender. “The jail has been working with us to set up video calls with clients where they can go into a room and have a conference. That’s been really lifesaving for us to try and at least have a meaningful conversation.”

Collins said the jail’s efforts to release about half its inmate population has helped, but she said the pandemic presents challenges even with defendants who are out of custody.

“You’re not coming to court, so there is the difficulty of maintaining communication with clients,” Collins said. “Many of our clients don’t have reliable cell phones or housing, and I think we’ll see the backlash of that this summer when we’re trying to reconnect.”

What happens this summer for the criminal justice system will be a delicate balancing act.

“Initially when this all happened, everybody was of the mindset, ‘Let’s just kick everything out to this summer, June and July,’” Collins said. “Now the problem is we’re coming up against June and July, and things don’t look much different.”

Boulder Chief District Judge Ingrid Bakke had most hearings delayed until after May 31, while the Colorado courts have put a halt to jury trials until July. That means attorneys are now tasked with balancing the constitutional rights of defendants with the public risks of jury trials, some of which require pools of hundreds of people.

“How are you going to do that safely, so the jurors are confident and not so anxious that they’re not able to focus? How many are even going to show up?” Collins said. “We are trying to plan for juries at some point, but also recognizing that it might be a long time before we are in a place where folks can safely be in a courthouse and be comfortable focusing their attention on a trial when everybody’s got a lot of other concerns right now.”

— Mitchell Byars

Plunging in to heling others

Tia Cakerice sits outside at her home in Nederland on Thursday. She has thrown herself into volunteering to help others in her community. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

In the face of the coronavirus pandemic, Nederland’s Tia Cakerice would probably be forgiven for taking a pass when it comes to worrying about others.

Cakerice, who turned 36 on Friday, copes with a number of physical ailments, including the spinal condition known as ankylosing spondylitis, plus okus spina bifida occulta and porphyria. And in recent weeks, a disc in her spine slipped, which will require major spinal surgery.

“It couldn’t be worse timing, with everything going on, and without income,” said the woman, who moved to Nederland from North Carolina with her husband, producer and videographer Eric Martin, and their three dogs a year ago.

Rather than being defeated by her physical challenges, however, Cakerice is defining herself as a tireless volunteer in her new community, plunging into a broad range of activities to help others get through hardships they face during the ongoing health crisis.

“I did not know Tia before the pandemic. She was one of the first volunteers that came to me. I have never seen her without her mask,” said Claudia Schauffler, a community advocate working through Nederland Community Presbyterian Church who is heading up an informal network known as the Mountain Community Volunteer Group. “She makes time to help when she really doesn’t have the time to give. That is my definition of being selfless.”

A talented chef, Cakerice had been cooking for the Louisville-based Organic Roots Catering before everything started shutting down. When her work there suddenly screeched to a halt, she turned to preparing food for those in her community who might otherwise be going without.

“People donate food to me, and I cook families for families in need,” she said. “I was doing cookies and brownies and cakes, and, stuff, so I could say, ‘Here, brighten your day.’ I know it’s such a serious situation. Doing things like that takes my mind off the craziness in the world.

“None of us know what’s going to happen. But I know what I can do in this moment. I was always raised to do whatever I can, to help anyone I can.”

Other contributions Cakerice has joined community members in providing include delivering groceries or prescriptions, homemade masks or even pet food to shut-ins, as well as making phone calls to people who might otherwise be missing a human connection.

Cakerice and her husband had a financial cushion from selling their house in North Carolina. But that has been spent. Still, she tries to remain upbeat.

“I’m a super-positive person, but this is scary,” she admitted. “I cannot even imagine what we would have done, had we not had that cushion. We were very fortunate to have it. …It definitely will be very fortunate for us, when we can start having an income again.”

— Charlie Brennan

Staying positive in face of lost senior rituals

Boulder High School graduate Samantha Ibarra stands outside of her home on Wednesday in Boulder. She is trying to focus on the positives while acknowledging the traditions and ceremonies she missed out on at the end of her senior year. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

Samantha Ibarra had about two months left of her senior year at Boulder High when concerns about the coronavirus forced her school to close.

Her job as a waitress at her family’s Boulder restaurant, Coma Mexican Grill, was gone. Her plans to help contact people in the Latino community for the 2020 Census as a project through her school’s Panther Z Club were nixed. And it was too late to cancel the order for the prom dress for her now canceled senior prom.

Awards ceremonies, a senior dinner and the school’s senior paper drop in the courtyard are other events she missed.

“I was really bummed about the paper drop,” she said. “I had saved all my papers from freshman year.”

While acknowledging the losses, she said, she tries to focus on the positives.

She’s still hopeful an in-person graduation ceremony will happen in July. She’s also glad the shutdowns happened in the last two months of school instead of at the start, making remote learning easier.

“We didn’t have much more to do,” she said. “At the beginning of the year, it would have been 10 times worse.”

Spending more time with her close-knit family has been a bonus, she said, though it was hard at first to manage being at home together all the time. Her parents are busy trying to keep the restaurant going with take-out orders. Her 20-year-old sister moved home from college, while her 8-year-old brother has fewer outlets for his boundless energy.

“It was a really hard transition,” she said. “Just having three of us at home on the computer … at the same time and different classes on Zoom was chaotic.”

She’s spent her time helping her brother with schoolwork, drawing, connecting with friends through her phone, going for bike rides and reading.

“I love to read,” she said, adding she’s been re-reading her favorite books, including “Five Feet Apart” by Rachael Lippincott — “ironically what we have to do right now.”

Her plan for the fall is to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. She’s not sure exactly what her college experience will look like as CU grapples with how to keep students safe, but is excited to become a college student. She’s majoring in political science and wants to become a lawyer.

“I’m just trying to have a positive mindset that everything will work out,” she said.

— Amy Bounds

Looking forward to in-person connections

Niwot High School student Gabe Gegenheimer poses for a portrait at Kanemoto Park in Longmont on Thursday. He said he misses having the opportunity to meet people outside of his family in person. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

Gabe Gegenheimer, who lives in Longmont and just finished his freshman year at Niwot High School, isn’t really looking forward to summer vacation.

Schoolwork, though it was remote, was helping him stay busy, he said. His summer plans, including working on the Cultiva farm crew in Longmont, were scuttled. His weekly in-person Dungeons and Dragons meetups are on hold. His LGBTQ youth group through Boulder County’s OASOS is now only online, with meetings held through Zoom.

He’s had to make the transition to online everything: school, his youth group, connecting with friends.

“It’s very chaotic,” he said. “We’re still getting used to what’s going on.”

Online school, once he got used to the new system, had both pluses and minuses.

He liked that he could go through work at his own pace. He even enjoyed his drama class more online. While he’s missed performing with others, working on his own has meant he doesn’t need to carry the weight for students who aren’t that into drama and often don’t show up, leaving him to take on multiple characters.

On the negative side, he missed the orderliness of school and his choir concerts. Thursday, the last day of school, also didn’t include the usual celebrations, closure or anticipation for summer break.

“It just feels like another normal day,” he said.

His online OASOS youth group meetings, which were held in Longmont in partnership with Out Boulder County, have been “a bit awkward” as everyone figures out the technology. He said participation also is down, likely because not all the students have access to Zoom or remember to log on — something he said he struggled with, too, as the days blended together.

Based on his interactions with the youth group, he added, it’s important to acknowledge how hard quarantining and social isolation can be for LGBTQ teens.

“It can be really hard if your parents aren’t super accepting,” he said. “Now, we don’t have anywhere to go.”

Though he sometimes likes being on his own and avoiding contact with people, he misses having the option to see people other than his parents and two younger siblings.

“I try to distract myself with drawing and talking to other people and playing games,” he said. “There’s only so much of that I can do.”

Once restrictions ease, he’s most looking forward to resuming in-person Dungeons and Dragons games, hanging out with friends and going to get ice cream.

Though he wants to go back to in-person learning, he also would rather continue online in the fall if it means a faster end to the pandemic.

“I want it to stay online so this will just go ahead and hopefully die down and to give scientists enough time to make a vaccine,” he said.

— Amy Bounds

Finding comfort in the familiar

Westview Middle School teacher Christy Kocjancic stands in the door of her home in Longmont on Friday. She said she is looking forward to getting back in the classroom. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

When kids aren’t spending the lengthening days of spring wrapping up school in the classroom, things don’t feel quite normal.

And that’s especially true for Westview Middle School teacher Christy Kocjancic.

“I’m a face-to-face person, especially with teaching,” said Kocjancic. “I really connect with kids… in person and it’s not the same on a computer screen.”

Kocjancic, who is teaching 8th graders this year, has been dealing — like many around the world — with this new detached way of life both at work and at home. Both have somewhat morphed together, as she finds herself at home, spending school days answering emails and in online meetings.

Outside of her work, though, she has found at least one silver lining in this quarantine. Because things have slowed or shut down, she’s found the time to spend time with her family, including her high school-age daughter and her college-age son, who is at home.

And, instead of watching the hot, binge-able TV-show of the day, the crew has found that watching “M.A.S.H.” has hit the spot.

“Here it is… a late ’70s, early ’80s show about the ’50s, and the humor and everything is so timely, even today,” she said. “Both my kids are just roaring laughing through it.”

She added that, knowing the characters are dealing with the dire reality of war, the show can provide a little perspective and make this pandemic seem much more conquerable.

Despite that, she does feel for her students — who are spending their last year at Westview Middle School — and her children, who have had their lives uprooted in what seemed like the blink of an eye by COVID-19.

“We’ve had (the students) for three years and the way we abruptly ended school, it was… just very disconcerting,” she said. “I didn’t even get to say ‘goodbye, see you after Spring Break.’”

One day, she was making plans for tomorrow’s school day, and the next the county was on lock down, with life for many grinding to a halt.

“I am definitely looking forward to (getting back into the classroom) and I really hope that we’re at a point where we will be able to go back to school,” she said.

— John Marinelli

Helping others cope with changes

Musician Keith Summers holds his guitar in his studio inside his home on Wednesday in Lafayette. Summers has started hosting a local coffee shops open mic nights online. (Jeremy Papasso/Staff Photographer)

In an era when so many are finding it more challenging to connect, Lafayette’s Keith Summers has upped his game.

Summers, a 43-year-old middle school counselor, saw the script of his daily life abruptly torn up and tossed aside in the second week of March, but he has been working full time since that day to maintain meaning and find his footing on the new landscape all have been inhabiting since that time.

March 12 stands out in Summers’ mind as the day it all went sideways. At his school, North Arvada Middle School, where he has been a counselor for seven years, the talk went rapidly from rumors early that day to changes possibly being made, to definite word that Friday the 13th would be the last day for in-person learning.

“The stay-at-home orders were supposed to be until to mid-April,” Summers recalled. “But we kind of figured they weren’t going to open back up. That was the word on the street.”

The following week, Summers said, was spent pretty much solely on establishing contact with the families of the roughly 300 students on his caseload.

“That first week was really all about reaching out to families that we thought would need internet service… We had four days, because then came spring break,” Summers said. “It was all about outreach, that whole week.”

Summers devoted time during the spring break to developing “mindfulness” videos to be placed on the school website for the benefit of parents and families. His acumen for video editing has made him a natural for another central pursuit of his time during the pandemic shutdown.

For several years, Summers has run the Wednesday open mic nights for downtown Lafayette’s Cannon Mine Coffee, at 210 S. Public Road, which has remained open with shortened hours, for take out and pick-up service.

Summers has migrated the open mics, which he believes might be the longest running in the county, onto Facebook Live. They now include people’s visual art work, as well, and are providing a virtual gathering place for community members who currently can’t share their talents in person.

“People can still come together in spite of all this craziness. They can still connect with each other through art and music,” Summers said, who lost a childhood friend to COVID-19. “I know for me, at least, It helps me out. It helps my mental health out to be able to turn to something like this and take a mental break… and it makes me feel connected to everybody.”

— Charlie Brennan

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