Colorado counties differ on whether to accept shift to “safer at home”

With Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home mandate set to shift to “safer at home” on Monday, counties across Colorado are grappling with how much leeway they should give to reopening businesses, while weighing the serious life-and-death risks that less social distancing might entail.

Some of the Front Range’s largest population centers — including Denver, Boulder, Arapahoe, Jefferson and Adams counties — are proceeding cautiously, electing to extend local stay-at-home orders until May 8, as they ramp up testing and contact tracing to better control the novel coronavirus’ spread when they do ease restrictions.

Others, such as Eagle and Mesa counties, have seen positive COVID-19 cases dwindle so much they’ve asked the state to loosen regulations. Weld County’s leaders have gone their own way, openly clashing with Polis’s plan, saying the governor has no right “to pick winners and losers” by deciding which businesses can and can’t open.

The result of Polis relaxing some restrictions has been a hodgepodge of rules, reflecting the varying degrees of COVID-19’s severity, as well as deep-rooted resentment of statewide mandates in some parts of Colorado.

In Denver, city officials need more time to expand testing, train staff and establish clear guidelines and regulations for safely allowing more and more people out of their homes, Mayor Michael Hancock said Friday in a news conference.

The Mile High City aims to nearly double the amount of testing for the new coronavirus before its stay-at-home order will be lifted, Hancock said. That would mean going from about 550 people being tested currently to about 1,000 each day.

That testing expansion should be well within Denver’s capabilities, Public Health Director Bob McDonald said.

“We’re not there yet, but we’re making great progress,” he said.

In addition, McDonald said Denver must train about 100 people to trace the contacts of those who test positive for the new coronavirus, and watch new cases moving forward.

Testing and tracing are crucial for tracking the transmission of the virus, which could surge at different points in the future, Hancock said.

“We must be prepared for COVID-19 to continue and worst-case scenarios include an outbreak during our winter flu season,” Hancock said.

In a best-case scenario, most of Denver’s restrictions could be relaxed over two-to-four months, though some officials are preparing for a longer haul than that.

Much of metro area follows Denver’s lead

A day after Denver announced it would extend its stay-at-home directive, much of the metro area followed suit, with Jefferson, Arapahoe, Boulder and Adams counties extending their orders to the same May 8 deadline.

One significant change in these metro counties’ extensions is that they — like Polis’ “safer-at-home” plan — will allow non-essential business to begin offering curbside pickup of products on Monday. That will still not be allowed in Denver, a city spokeswoman confirmed.

The county public health departments indicated that they have not seen significant enough declines in daily cases, nor do they have the testing capacity or comfort that their hospitals could weather a surge in COVID-19 patients.

“No two communities in Colorado are the same, and each community has different needs as we look to the next stages of response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Dr. Mark B. Johnson, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, said in a statement. “We have to consider what impact opening too soon could have on those in our community and region, and take a phased, science-based approach to reopening.”

According to the Tri-County Health Department, Douglas County has seen COVID-19 case numbers level off enough in recent weeks that it will not join Arapahoe and Adams counties in extending stay-at-home restrictions. Instead, Douglas County will follow the governor’s new “safer-at-home” timetable of gradual business reopenings.

Republican lawmakers from Douglas County last month urged county commissioners to sever ties with Tri-County Health after the agency rolled out its initial stay-at-home order covering Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties.

Weld County clashes with Polis’s plan

While most metro area jurisdictions opted to keep the stay-at-home mandate into at least early May, Weld County officials indicated they intend to operate on their own timeline — and by their own rules.

On Thursday, the chairman of Weld County’s board of county commissioners said in a radio interview that any businesses that follow the county’s new “safer-at-work” social-distancing guidelines can open their doors to the public beginning on Monday — regardless of Polis’s plans to slowly phase in categories of business reopenings.

“We’ve been picking winners and losers in this state for the last six weeks, or however long it’s been,” Commissioner Mike Freeman told KFKA-1310 AM radio. “We made a decision — not us, the governor made a decision of what is an essential business. I have no idea how you determine that pot shops are essential businesses, but those were included in this.”

In a statement Friday, the Weld County commissioners said they “took the proactive response of preparing best practices and guidance that could be used as business owners look to reopen — whenever they feel comfortable to do so. An informed public is a strong public.”

Weld County’s actions drew a strong rebuke Friday afternoon from Polis, who said he would “take whatever steps necessary” to prevent county officials from endangering lives.

“Weld has had a very high number of cases — it’s a hot spot — and this is not the time to further ease off of restrictions, even beyond what the state is trying to allow,” Polis said on a conference call with reporters. “We want to work with the commissioners — we don’t want to participate in political games.”

As of Friday, Weld County had the third-highest total of COVID-19 infections and deaths among counties in Colorado, with a total of 1,353 cases and 82 deaths. The county also has seen deadly outbreaks at a meat-packing plant and several nursing homes.

Counties who are out of compliance can lose state emergency preparedness grants, Polis said, while businesses could lose their licenses to operate.

 

Colorado counties have the ability to receive waivers on some statewide restrictions if they submit a plan to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, showing 14 days of decreasing total cases along with other indicators.

Freeman, in the radio interview, said Weld County had not submitted a plan to the state health department. “We are going to rely on the Weld County health department to make decisions in Weld County,” he said.

Eagle County on Friday announced it was instituting a revised public health order after receiving clearance from the state to relax some of its social-distancing requirements. The order will allow groups up to 10 people, reopen some outdoor recreation spaces and allow more nonessential businesses to resume operations as long as social distancing can be practiced.

Mesa County is expected to receive a similar waiver from the state, allowing it to introduce similar changes in the near future.

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