Fifty of Colorado’s 64 counties will move to lower levels of coronavirus restrictions on Saturday, as the state unveils a new “dial” system that will take into account vaccination rates.
The changes mean that restaurants and other businesses will be allowed higher capacity limits in those counties, as will gyms and office spaces. Schools will be encouraged to have in-person instruction.
The state is also tweaking the dial system — which places counties in varying levels of restriction from green, the lowest, to purple, the most severe, based on how under control coronavirus cases are in the county. At a news conference Friday, Gov. Jared Polis said the changes make the dial “a more responsive tool” by allowing the state to move counties up or down in restriction level more quickly.
The long-awaited changes to the dial are intended to account for the new, post-vaccination landscape in the state. As more older Coloradans receive the vaccine, the less likely it is that Colorado will see overwhelmed hospitals or surges in deaths, allowing the state to think differently about the risks of the virus.
But Polis said that only works if Coloradans continue to exercise caution even while taking advantage of the loosened restrictions.
“We want to make sure that in the final months of the pandemic we don’t have the worst months of the pandemic,” Polis said.
Where counties are now
Currently, most of the state is in “orange” status, which limits indoor seating capacity at restaurants, as well as capacity in office spaces and gyms to 25%, and sets last call for alcohol sales at restaurants at 10 p.m.
Where counties are moving to
Every county in the Denver metro area, along with other large counties such as Larimer, El Paso and Pueblo, will move from “orange” status to “yellow” status on Saturday. The shift allows for greater indoor dining at restaurants, among other changes.
Several counties across southern, eastern and northwestern Colorado will move to “blue” status — the second-lowest level of restriction.
Ten counties, mostly those in ski country, will remain in orange status — Routt, Grand, Eagle, Summit, Clear Creek, Lake, Pitkin, Mesa, Ouray and San Miguel.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said which counties will be changing status could possibly change before Saturday morning, as CDPHE staff double-check numbers.
“Right now I’m not expecting that, but it certainly could happen,” she said.
The changes in county restriction levels come as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to fall, following a peak late last year. Ryan said hospitals are no longer under stress — on Thursday, Colorado hospitals stood down a unified transfer center that helped them quickly move patients around if hospitals became overwhelmed.
The percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive statewide has dipped below 5%, and the state has excess testing capacity that is not being tapped.
“We have had a real, sustained decline since November,” Ryan said. “… It’s obvious that people are continuing to maintain social distancing and mask-wearing.”
The state looks at a county’s case rates, hospitalization figures and test positivity percentage in deciding where to place it on the dial. How much of a county’s 70-and-older population has been vaccinated will now also be taken into account in deciding whether to loosen certain business restrictions.
Polis said there will likely be another change to the dial system later in the year, as more Coloradans are vaccinated. Once enough Coloradans receive a coronavirus vaccine and case rates are low enough, the state will get rid of the dial.
“I wake up every morning saying, ‘Can we abolish the dial yet?’ The truth is we all know we can’t,” Polis said. “But that day will come.”