Nearly half of Colorado counties seek easing of state’s coronavirus restrictions

Nearly half of Colorado’s 64 counties are asking the state to ease some “safer-at-home” restrictions in their jurisdictions, but only a handful of requests have been approved since the second phase of the governor’s coronavirus response plan began in late April.

At least five counties have been allowed to loosen local restrictions imposed by the statewide public health order: Moffat, Rio Blanco, Eagle, Mesa and Sedgwick counties all have had variances granted, according to data collected by The Denver Post and Colorado Counties Inc., a nonprofit organization that represents 61 counties across the state.

At least 23 other counties are in the process of making requests or have made requests that are pending or were initially denied, including to information collected by The Post and Colorado Counties.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Thursday did not provide The Post with requested information on variances that have been granted or denied by the state to date.

In the granted requests, Colorado health officials gave permission for churches, gyms, restaurants and even movie theaters to open in some counties — with reduced capacity and strict safety measures, including screening customers for COVID-19 symptoms and requiring employees to wear masks.

Movie theaters in Moffat County can reopen with customers from different parties seated at least three seats apart, alternating every other row, according to a letter from the state. In Rio Blanco County, restaurants can open at 30% capacity but can’t allow patrons to wait in their lobbies for a table; reservations should be taken instead, according to another letter from the state to the county.

Mounting frustration

But as some parts of the state open up, frustration is mounting in counties where similar requests have been denied.

“We are dying out here,” said Jane Bauder, a Logan County commissioner. “We can’t go any longer without these businesses being open.”

Logan County, in the northeastern corner of Colorado with a population of 12 people per square mile, asked the state on April 29 to lift some “safer-at-home” restrictions, including allowing restaurants, gyms, churches and movie theaters to open with reduced capacity and social-distancing measures.

The request was denied May 12, with state officials pointing to the large outbreak of COVID-19 at Sterling Correctional Facility, Bauder said. At least 440 inmates and 16 staff members have tested positive for the disease, and two inmates have died from it, according to data maintained by the state health department.

The agency was concerned that employees at the prison might create community spread, Commissioner Byron Pelton said, but he and others believe the outbreak is contained to the prison, which is run by the state.

“Our health department has done an excellent job,” he said. “As soon as they find out it is an employee, they get on them, making sure they are doing quarantine for 14 days. We know where the cases are after they’ve been tested.”

Of the five counties that have received permission to loosen restrictions, three have very low case counts: Sedgwick County has zero confirmed cases, Rio Blanco County has one, Moffat County has six.

Logan County has 483 total cases — only about 25 of which are not connected to the prison. Yuma County, which Pelton said also had a variance request denied, has 11 confirmed cases.

Logan County commissioners will be among officials from several counties to seek clarification from the state health department Friday on what, exactly, the state is looking for in variance requests, which can give counties some flexibility in dealing with the pandemic locally. Colorado counties also can impose more strict restrictions than those outlined in the statewide order, and at least 15 counties have done so, according to Colorado Counties Inc.

To receive a variance, state health officials have said counties must meet several conditions, including showing they have low or declining rates of COVID-19 infections, a plan in place to deal with any surges, and approval from the local health agency, hospitals and elected officials.

“It’s not an easy process,” said John Swartout, executive director of Colorado Counties Inc. “And that’s not a criticism. It’s just everyone wants to make sure that if they’re going to reopen, they can do it safely.”

“They have a tough job”

Officials in El Paso County spent three-and-a-half hours in a public meeting Thursday going over their proposed variance request to the state, which seeks to allow restaurants to open for dine-in service with some restrictions.

Much of the debate centered on a single paragraph in the proposal — 2C — that initially required one adult in every party that dined in a restaurant to provide a phone number and name in case county health officials later discovered the novel coronavirus was spreading in the restaurant and needed to alert patrons.

County officials opted to make that voluntary, giving restaurants the choice of whether to collect and maintain that information. If restaurants collect it, they should keep the records for 21 days and must provide them to the county health department on request, according to the resolution, which passed by a unanimous vote. El Paso County still needs approval from the state on the proposal.

In Garfield County, elected officials are working to close a restaurant — Shooters Grill in Rifle — that opened to in-person dining in defiance of the state’s public health order while simultaneously preparing to ask Gov. Jared Polis for a variance that would allow eateries to legally open at reduced capacity.

Friday’s conference call between state and county officials is a way for Colorado health officials to efficiently answer questions from several counties instead of handling inquiries individually, Swartout said. The state has been working with counties, even those that have initially been denied, to find a way to get requests approved, he said. Logan County commissioners plan to resubmit a variance request Friday.

“There’s a sense of, ‘What do we need to do to get the yes?’ ” Swartout said. “And it is frustrating. But on the other side, you have health directors and CDPHE trying to do what they can to slow the spread of this, and they have a tough job, too.”

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