Weld County businesses got the green light to reopen this week despite serious concerns expressed by Dr. Mark Wallace, executive director of the Weld County Department of Health and Environment.
A day before the five Weld County Commissioners unveiled their “safer-at-work” initiative, Wallace warned against it, according to internal emails obtained by The NoCo Optimist through a Colorado Open Records Act request.
“The relative ineffectiveness of actions and interventions to control transmission in Weld County as evidenced by our ongoing high case rate raise serious concerns and considerations for staging reopening,” Wallace wrote. “Weld County has not met the threshold for reopening of a downward trajectory of cases. Any relaxation of restrictions should be cautiously staged given the risk of even wider spread of the disease.”
Wallace wrote the county still has widespread community transmission with outbreaks in nursing homes and several large employers.
As of Wednesday, Weld County had 1,769 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and had seen a total of 94 deaths due to the virus. The outbreaks in the county include one that has sickened hundreds of workers and killed at least six people at the JBS beef plant in Greeley.
Statewide, there were 14,758 confirmed positive cases and 766 deaths, according to state data.
Weld County has logged the third-highest number of deaths in the state, behind Denver and Arapahoe counties. Yet, Weld had more cases per 100,000 people than Denver or Arapahoe counties, state data show.
The commissioners announced the safer-at-work initiative last week on the heels of Gov. Jared Polis’ “safer-at-home” executive order. The governor has warned that Weld County is risking losing its emergency preparedness grants by flouting his mandate.
Counties are able to apply to the state to relax restrictions on people’s movement beyond what the safer-at-home order allows. But Polis said Weld County hasn’t done that and also still has such a high rate of virus transmission that it’s unlikely they’d be eligible to move forward with less restrictions.
Weld County hadn’t seen a consecutive decline when commissioners made the call, and Wallace made that clear in his emails to the commissioners.
“Weld County and the Front Range communities have failed to cross the foundational threshold of flat or declining cases for 14 days called for in federal, state, and local guidance,” Wallace wrote to the commissioners, according to the internal emails. “I have serious heartburn looking at our data in Weld County.”
Weld County Commissioner Mike Freeman – who represents northern Weld, including Windsor, Severance and north Greeley – said in an interview April 24 the commissioners made the move partly because it seemed the governor was picking winners and losers.
“It’s hard to explain to a mom-and-pop business why pot shops can be open and they can’t,” he said.
Though businesses were able to put things on pause for 40 days, many folks are running out of money, he said.
“Weld County is not opening any businesses, just like we didn’t close any businesses,” Freeman said in an interview with The Optimist. “Constituents are going to open businesses anyway. We felt it was in the best interest of Weld to issue guidelines to help keep consumers, employees and business owners safe.”
Meanwhile, the city of Greeley on Friday said it would follow the governor’s orders.
“Based on the medical and scientific data, and the high number of cases in Weld County, the City of Greeley strongly supports following the ‘Safer at Home’ philosophy,” Greeley Mayor John Gates said in a news release. “This approach protects lives, flattens the curve and is a step in the right direction for getting our community back to a fully operational economy.”
In an interview with the Optimist, city councilmember Tommy Butler, who represents northeast Greeley, said the county commissioners did not consult with city council before announcing their decision.
“This is not the time for political games,” Butler said. “What the county put out was antagonistic. We need to make sure things are as safe as we can before we can reopen.”
The NoCo Optimist is a news outlet in northern Colorado produced and managed by Kelly Ragan, a former reporter at the Greeley Tribune and Fort Collins Coloradoan.