As Colorado shifted from beneath its month-long stay-home order to slightly less restrictive guidelines, it offered a glimmer of hope to communities where COVID-19 cases were few and far between: Draw up your own rules for reopening and apply for a variance.
Mesa County filed its application April 27 – the day Safer at Home rules went into effect. It was approved the following day.
Eager to help businesses survive and salvage their tattered economies, 30 total counties jumped in line and the process quickly bogged down. As nine counties were granted variances, they were eyed with envy and officials worried – for health and economic reasons — about residents traveling to neighboring counties to visit a restaurant or shop.
Nobody wants to be the last to reopen.
Sterling City Manager Don Saling said as restaurants and bars open elsewhere, they’re attracting people from adjacent communities. From northeast Colorado, residents will travel across the nearby Nebraska state line to dine inside restaurants or have a beer in a bar.
“I know it’s happening,” he said when asked whether people from Logan County were visiting restaurants in Sidney, Nebraska.
As the Memorial Day weekend and the day – May 26 – when state orders will be extended or amended approaches, frustration simmers and in some cases has boiled over.
At least two restaurants, one in Castle Rock and one in Rifle, reopened illegally in the past week and in Fremont County confusion over the variance process transformed cruise nights to support Cañon City businesses into protests against the state government.
“People need to realize that this is a dynamic process and things are changing daily,” said Shane Roberts, public information officer for the Fremont County Emergency Operations Center.
In a text Friday, Roberts said the county had received “no word” from the state about the status of the county’s May 6 application for a variance. “We are still hopeful,” he texted.
Variance requests from at least three counties – Yuma, Logan and Montezuma — have been denied, although state officials said if they could provide additional information or if circumstances change they would be reconsidered. On Friday, Logan and Yuma counties submitted supplemental information to their requests, said Trish McClain, director of the Northeast Colorado Health Department.
On the same day, Mesa County submitted its second variance request, hoping to convince the state to allow the county health department to approve individual business plans, regardless of the type of business, said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health.
Using what it learned as businesses began to reopen, the health department created a checklist of 20 items that owners must include in their plan.
“We’re asking ‘Are you willing to implement each of these best practices?’” Kuhr said. “We ask them to draw a map of their facility to show — What will tables look like? Where will hand sanitizer stations be?
“If they can make the case, then why not?”
He said allowing businesses to take the lead and show how they can create a safe environment for workers and clients makes more sense than one-size-fits-all directions for reopening categories of businesses. He said he spoke with CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan about the idea and he hopes it can become a model for other counties. They also talked about streamlining the variance process.
“We actively work with counties to assist them with a plan to help bring them closer to meeting variance criteria if that is needed,” a spokeswoman for Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a written statement.
Kuhr and McClain said the state plans to make the process more efficient with a quicker turnaround time, reducing it to a few days instead of, in some cases, more than two weeks.
Kuhr had encouraging words for other counties that are starting to reopen. He said things went quite smoothly in Mesa County, although there were surprises. One was that some restaurants did not reopen their dining rooms but are continuing robust pickup and delivery services.
“They know that restaurants do draw tourists and they’ve expressed concerns about that,” he said, noting that while county residents have gotten pretty good at social distancing “we need to educate ourselves on how to distance from tourists.”
“Put on a mask and try to blow out a match or candle. You can’t do it”
Despite the overall success of the initial reopening, Kuhr said there still are residents who refuse to do such things as wear masks in public spaces.
“We’re making an effort to try to let all of our businesses open up, to a certain degree,” he said. “So, I ask, ‘Would wearing a mask be too high a price to pay for our economy?’”
For those who say it doesn’t do any good, he responds: “Put on a mask and try to blow out a match or a candle. You can’t do it and that’s the point.”
McClain has the same frustration with residents of northeast Colorado because containing the virus will help communities reopen and not face another shutdown locally or statewide.
“Some aren’t wearing masks because they don’t agree with the restrictions,” she said. “Masks are meant to keep your spit to yourself and my spit to myself so we don’t spread this stuff around.”
Keeping COVID-19 numbers low and plans to contain any outbreaks are key for counties seeking variances.
The criteria considered for a variance includes:
- A very low number of cases or a decline of cases or positive tests over the 14-day period preceding the request.
- Enough hospital capacity to handle COVID-19 cases as well as the community’s other medical needs.
- A plan to detect new cases and contain a potential outbreak.
- Details of the restrictions being proposed to replace the state’s order.
- Details of how the county will monitor the impacts of the proposed variances to the restrictions.
Nine counties have so far been granted variances: Cheyenne, Custer, Eagle, El Paso, Kit Carson, Mesa, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Sedgwick.
Kit Carson’s was approved Saturday after its initial request was returned May 8 with a request for additional provisions.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Saturday released a list of the counties that have sought or received waivers from the governor’s Safer at Home order, without giving details. Colorado Counties Inc. is maintaining a list on its website and shows 20. But there are more, including the one from Fremont County, two from El Paso County and the second one from Mesa County.
Also, Eagle County on Friday applied for a second variance. Its first was granted April 23 under the Stay at Home order.
This is CDPHE’s list of counties that have applied for variances:
– El Paso
– Kit Carson
– Rio Blanco
– Eagle (second variance submitted)
– Rio Grande
Source: The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
The variances granted are set to expire May 26 when the governor’s Safer at Home order expires. But the governor’s order could be extended or modified. The variances also can be extended and McClain said the CDPHE does not expect to ask counties to reapply for variances.
If the state loosens restrictions, those would apply to all counties unless they choose to have tighter controls.
Most of the counties are seeking to allow limited dine-in seating at local restaurants and the opening of churches. Others are asking to open gyms and the outdoor industry. El Paso County’s first request, granted late Thursday, was to allow outdoor high school graduation ceremonies for students only with strict health protocols.
Logan and Montezuma said that their requests were denied, both in part because of issues out of their control. For Logan, it was the outbreak at the Sterling Correctional Facility, and for Montezuma, it was the seriousness of COVID-19 outbreaks in adjacent counties in New Mexico.
While Logan County, population 22,400, has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections per 100,000 people among Colorado’s 64 counties, officials argue that 92% of the cases there are behind the walls of the Sterling Correctional Facility, the state’s largest prison and where 440 inmates have tested positive for the coronavirus. Two have died.
In the rest of Logan County, including the city of Sterling, population 13,600, there have been 40 cases and one death, based on data posted on the Northeast Colorado Health Department website.
They are adjacent to another community outbreak center: Morgan County has three clusters: Cargill Meat Solutions, which has had 75 cases and three deaths; Leprino Foods, with 87 cases, and at Eben Ezer Lutheran Care Center, with 19 confirmed coronavirus deaths and one other fatality linked to the disease.
Still, Logan County and Sterling officials believe that carefully opening businesses within the rural community can help it economically without endangering residents’ health.
“It’s my frustration and the city council’s frustration that we need to get our businesses open,” Saling said. “I have heard already that two have closed and won’t reopen. Our plan was to open at 30% capacity with PPE (personal protective equipment) and everything needed.”
He and Sterling Mayor Dave Appelhans bemoaned the fact that local officials have no control over what happens in the prison, and many of the prison workforce live in surrounding counties.
In its request for a variance, Logan County asked state officials to consider the prison a “sealed environment” because inmates don’t mix with the local community, according to a report in the Sterling Journal-Advocate.
Fremont County is home to nine state correctional facilities, but no inmates there have tested positive for the virus, according to a Department of Corrections dashboard that is updated almost daily.
Spokeswoman Annie Skinner said in email that six staff members from Fremont County facilities had tested positive as of April 11.
Fremont County had bad timing in trying to get permission to relax its rules.
On April 23, the county health department sought a waiver from the state’s Stay at Home orders.
But the state was about to shift to Safer at Home and the county was advised in a phone call with CDPHE that the state wasn’t going to consider the request because it arrived within 24 hours of the changes, said Roberts, the county’s EOC spokesman.
In the meantime, an April 24 vehicle parade meant to support businesses in downtown Cañon City, the county seat, led to some sidewalk gatherings that were blamed for the waiver not going through. That resulted in local outrage toward the state government on social media and Main Street cruising on subsequent Friday nights with vehicles waving American, Trump and Don’t Tread on Me flags.
“We tried to work with the downtown business alliance and get people to order food, drive downtown, honk your horn, pick up your food and go home,” Cañon City Mayor Ashley Smith said.
Instead, people got out of vehicles to greet one another on the sidewalk, and then it turned into a protest of government restrictions. Cañon City police issued no citations but urged people to move along and not gather in large groups. By May 8, the message seemed to be clear – the cruising and flag waving continued but those who stopped along Main Street mostly stayed with their vehicles, playing music or eating take-out in the beds of their pickup trucks.
Roberts said he wasn’t sure how the gatherings got blamed for the delay on the variance request but noted that it was a “logical guess” if you didn’t have all the information.
Lost time is lost money, tourism businesses say
The county sent its variance request to the state May 6 and expected to hear something within three to five days, Roberts said. But more than a week later, it’s still waiting.
Businesses, though, are anxious to reopen or move beyond pickup service only, particularly as the Memorial Day weekend and warmer weather arrives.
“We need to be in operation,” said Ty Seufer, owner of Royal Gorge Rafting and Zipline Tours in Cañon City. “We have lost two months on the river and a month at the (seasonal) White Water Bar and Grill. We have an acre there so we can really spread out – easily stay 6 feet apart.
“What we need right now is to spread some peace and happiness out there,” he continued. “People need to be outside. We’ve got the cleanest buses and boats you’ve ever seen.”
Seufer got a Paycheck Protection Program loan in the first go-round, so hasn’t had to lay off any of the 50 employees who were just gearing up for the summer season. While ziplining is year-round, summer is the big season.
But he’s watching the rafting trip cancellations come in daily and wondering how running the business at lower capacity will work.
Raft guides, for instance, are paid by the trip down the river, whether they carry two passengers or a boatload. He noted that many raft guides who work at ski resorts in the winter and on the river in the summer are having a rough time this year with closures in both industries.
Business groups that come for fun and team-building are a huge part of his business, as are tourists from the Front Range and Texas. He’s ready to follow the rules, whatever they turn out to be, but is hoping for a level playing field with neighboring Chaffee County, which also has a pending variance request that would allow outfitters to open.
“The water’s going to be fabulous, the temperatures are fabulous,” he said wistfully as a note of resignation came into his voice. “But it’s not a good business time right now.”
Updated on May 18, 2020, at 8:30 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct an error made by an editor. Thirty counties have applied for variances, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That represents about half of all of Colorado’s 64 counties.