Five Colorado counties can now allow larger events despite COVID-19 under “Protect Our Neighbors” – The Denver Post

Gunnison and Moffat counties are the latest to get permission to loosen a number of state rules designed to restrict the spread of COVID-19, as Colorado continues to move more decisions to a local level.

Gov. Jared Polis had announced last week that Mesa, Rio Blanco and Gilpin counties were the first to move into the Protect Our Neighbors phase of reopening, which allows for larger events than the Safer at Home stage, where most counties remain.

He said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon that Gunnison and Moffat counties had met requirements to loosen their restrictions.

Protect Our Neighbors allows almost all businesses and activities to operate at 50% of capacity. If case and hospitalization numbers remain low, counties can gradually allow facilities to operate at a higher capacity, up to a limit of 500 people.

Counties also can opt out of the statewide mask order, or loosen some of its requirements, if the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment signs off. They can’t reopen bars, however, or allow restaurants to serve alcohol after 11 p.m., unless the governor issues new orders on those subjects.

“The primary difference for Protect Our Neighbors is an eased restriction on crowd sizes and certain activities, like permitting table games in casinos,” a spokeswoman for the state health department said.

Cari Ladrow, director of Moffat County Public Health, said the county hadn’t sought any rules changes other than the higher occupancy cap.

“We’re not changing the mask order or anything,” she said.

Restaurants in Mesa County already were allowed to operate at 50% of capacity, but still had to adhere to the 175-person limit, said Jeff Kuhn, executive director of Mesa County Public Health. A few large restaurants will benefit from raising the cap, but the change will be most important for houses of worship, some of which can hold 1,000 people, he said.

Mesa County also is looking at adding exemptions to the state mask order, including that workers in cubicles don’t have to wear them and exercisers can take them off at the gym, so long as the facility keeps equipment spaced out and doesn’t offer group classes, Kuhn said.

“We’re going to ease out of that,” he said.

Before they can move to Protect Our Neighbors status, counties’ applications have to show they have low levels of COVID-19 and that their hospitals and public-health infrastructure are ready for a small-to-moderate increase in cases. They also have to outline how they would respond if cases increase.

The five counties have slightly different cut-off points for triggering action, but all of their plans include watching for an increase in hospitalizations, cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive. They also are monitoring how much protective equipment hospitals have on hand and how quickly contact tracers can reach everyone who was close to someone who tested positive.

If the metrics start to show a problem, counties have three weeks to get cases back under control before possibly losing their status.

Rio Blanco and Gilpin counties’ plans also required monitoring nearby counties. Gilpin County doesn’t have any hospitals, so a surge in nearby Jefferson or Boulder counties could create a problem. While Rio Blanco does have some hospital beds, nearly all patients who need intensive care are taken to Mesa County.

Gilpin County’s changes largely focused on casinos, which are now allowed to offer table games, with some modifications. If a casino has an outbreak of two or more cases, it could be required to reduce the number of customers at any given time, do more cleaning, require staff to wear face shields, or close, as a “last resort.” County health officials didn’t respond to interview requests.

Polis described Protect Our Neighbors status as a way to shift more decision-making to the county or city level, since conditions vary widely around the state.

“We’re trying to do away with state restrictions,” he said. “The communities take the responsibility to act.”

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