Director’s Blog March 28, 2020
By Ian Billick, PhD
Unfortunately this will not be my last missive on the virus. Knowing that our community is spread across the world and experiencing different stages of infection and closures, this blog is a glimpse into Gunnison County, a virus hotspot, and how RMBL is thinking about summer and beyond.
While it is difficult to interpret the numbers, Gunnison has one of the highest county-wide confirmed infection rates with over 4 cases per thousand (5th highest behind two counties in NY and WA?), with 75 confirmed infections (42% of those tested). 609 people have self-reported virus symptoms.
Not surprisingly, the county is shut down. The governor issued a statewide stay at home order on Wednesday, March 25, through April 11. The county has similar, more restrictive orders in place, including limiting access to public lands by Gunnison residents only. I suspect that order would not hold up to a constitutional challenge, but it doesn’t seem like a good time to have the conversation.
The good news is that social distancing is working locally. The number of cases is dropping and the hospital has not been overwhelmed. We have seen 1 death and with a lack of intensive care facilities, patients are being shipped to other hospitals. But given the rate of infection, things could be worse.
It is not clear what will follow the decline in infections. Neither the county nor the state have articulated a mid-term plan. What will be critical thresholds triggering changes to the health orders? Once cases drop, will they relax social distancing? If the county gets a handle on the situation, will they still discourage (legally or illegally) visitors to the county or public lands?
With this uncertainty in mind, how is RMBL thinking about the summer undergraduate program? While we plan for business as normal, we are also thinking about business not as normal. We may use distance learning and develop group projects if we have to reduce or eliminate time in Gothic. These changes would not be ideal, but with the closure orders RMBL may not have a choice and students may not have other opportunities. Contact Rosemary Smith, email@example.com, for more info or to help.
How are we thinking about research? Business as normal, we are processing research and animal care applications and plan to open most or all Gothic buildings with water. It is not good for many systems to be shut down too long and the opening will us to quickly allow scientists to return if the county is opened part way through the summer. With business not as normal in mind, in the absence of students in Gothic we are unlikely to operate the dining hall. We continue to think about creative ways to support scientists, including organizing research assistants living locally. Contact Jennie Reithel, firstname.lastname@example.org, with questions/suggestions. Look for a survey next week as we try to better understand your needs.
RMBL’s Board is active and involved. The Board Leadership met Friday March 21 and the Board is forming a committee that will meet Friday, April 3. I anticipate the committee will include Dan Blumstein (President/scientist), Bruce McLean (Chair), Brian Wildes (Treasurer), and several more scientists from the Board. The committee will review a draft coronavirus strategy to send to the full board. A strategy might include components like: within legal and health constraints RMBL will prioritize research over other non-essential activities, and within the context of our mission and normal activities RMBL will work creatively to limit financial losses (e.g., distance learning).
Will RMBL be able to continue operating if we are closed this summer and suffer large financial losses? One of the strategies might be ensuring RMBL has the financial and personnel resources to fully operate in 2021. After the Board develops a general strategy, we will present the committee, and ultimately the Board, financial analyses under a range of assumptions.
What does a quick glimpse at RMBL’s finances say about our future? While it may not be easy, we see no problems being fully operational in 2021. We can squeeze 2020 expenditures down from $2.1 million to $1.3 million without losing permanent staff or undermining the future. A very conservative estimate drops revenue projections from $2.1 million to $900,000 with lots of opportunity to generate additional income through programs and fundraising. We started the year with about $400,00 in reserves. We have been working on a conservation easement that would generate $1.2 million in the next year. We are also eligible for some of the federal stimulus programs. So while we are not certain how we will navigate the next 15 months until the dining hall welcomes 250 guests for the 4th of July BBQ, we are comfortable there is a path.
Thanks to Ben Blonder for suggesting RMBL’s finances be part of a blog post. If you have questions, ideas, or suggestions for future blog posts, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. We will do our best to communicate, understand your needs, and flexibly respond to rapidly changing circumstances. We appreciate the patience, compassion, and support the entire RMBL community has shown each other as we navigate crazy times!