By Pam Zubeck

As some areas of the state extended stay-home orders until May 8, Weld County appeared to be ready to defy Governor Jared Polis’ “safer-at-home” order that kicks in April 27, allowing Weld County businesses that wish to open to do so without specific guidelines for social distancing to discourage the spread of COVID-19.

El Paso County will follow Polis’ safer-at-home guidelines, which allows some business to begin opening within certain parameters April 27 but keeps restaurants and bars shut until mid-May.

Enforcement falls to local health departments, and The Aurora Sentinel reported April 24 that county health officials in Adams County, which oversees Aurora, shut down a Walmart Supercenter in the city after multiple employees there contracted the novel coronavirus, and three people affiliated with the store died.

The City of Denver and Jefferson County extended their stay-home orders through May 8. “Our priority is to keep our residents safe and to save lives,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in a news release. “This virus is not going away and we need to be prepared for the long-term impacts. With the state’s guidance, and by taking extra time to be thoughtful and deliberate, we want to ensure that we will have adequate contact tracing and testing capability, and the time to provide the guidance that our residents and business community need to re-open safely.”

From the release:

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Opening after May 8 will also allow the city to:
• Identify and cross-train staff to implement COVID-19 case management, including contact tracing and monitoring, complete case investigations and enforce isolation and quarantine orders
• Expand and improve testing with a goal of reaching 1,000 tests per day
• Secure additional and improved personal protective equipment (PPE)
Increase and enhance communication between the city and businesses regarding guidelines and policies for reopening while maintaining best public health practices
• Provide businesses the opportunity to prepare for reopening with strategies from the Department of Public Health & Environment as well as their own policies

The latest numbers: 12,256 cases statewide, 2,366 hospitalizations, 56,789 tested, 674 deaths — an increase of 22 from the day before.

In El Paso County, there are 798 cases and 55 deaths, no change from the previous day. However, the county Public Health website reports 812 cases. We asked Public Health to explain the discrepancy but haven’t heard back yet.

Polis said during a media briefing that a process exists for counties to seek waivers to sidestep statewide guidelines. Eagle County has been granted such a waiver, and Mesa County is expected to see one, he said.

As for Weld County, he said, “We’ve not received a request from Weld County. They do not have any unilateral ability to jeopardize the health of residents of Weld County, and as governor I will take whatever steps are necessary to protect Weld County.” He noted Weld has one of the highest per capita COVID infection rates in the state.

Polis urged residents to recreate within 10 miles of their homes to avoid spread the virus to other parts of the state and to maintain social distancing and not create clusters in certain areas.

He said he’s creating an advisory board for “how we can stay safer at home for the long haul.” The board will include representatives from local government, law enforcement, local public health agencies and the state Economic Recovery Council, as well as his public safety director, public health director, Department of Regulatory Agencies director and chief of staff.

Monday, the governor will begin giving guidance on how businesses can comply in preparation for opening in another week, though some can open on Monday for curbside service, if certain conditions are met, such as maintaining social distancing and wearing masks. When retail starts to open in May, customers likely will be asked to wear masks. Polis also encouraged anyone who can should continue to work remotely if possible.

In fact, Polis said wearing masks is the new normal and will last for months, as a new round of coronavirus is expected to emerge in the fall. Until a vaccine and/or treatment is developed, the goal is to prevent spread.

“When you look at every model, no model says the virus is stamped out in America,” he said.

He later issued a news release saying:

The Safer-at-Home phase is not a return to normal. This is merely transitioning to a more sustainable level of social distancing that we are going to have to maintain for the long haul — likely months. We need to wear facial masks when in public and observe the safety guidelines at local businesses. This is difficult for everyone but we are in this together and we will get through it together. The next few weeks are even more important than the last few.
Safer-at-home guidelines:
• Vulnerable populations and older adults must stay home unless absolutely necessary.
• No group gatherings of more than 10 people.
• Critical businesses will remain open with strict precautions (social distancing, masks for all employees, more frequent cleanings, etc.)
• Retail businesses may open for curbside delivery and phased-in public opening with strict precautions.
• Nightclubs, gyms and spas will remain closed.
• Elective medical and dental procedures begin, with strict precautions to ensure adequate personal protective equipment and the ability to meet critical care needs.
• Personal services (salons, tattoo parlors, dog grooming, personal training, etc.) will open with strict precautions.
• K-12 schools and postsecondary institutions will continue to suspend normal in-person instruction for the 2019-2020 school year.
• Telecommuting continues for offices. Starting on May 4, up to 50% of staff can work in person (with social distancing in place).
• The state is not changing requirements for nursing homes and other senior care facilities. There will continue to be restrictions on visiting residents.

In other news:

Mayor John Suthers says city workers will begin returning to work on site on May 4, with more coming back on May 18. A quarter of city workers are working from home. More than half of city employees are sworn — police and fire — who have been on the job through the pandemic.

President Trump signed the bipartisan bill, the Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act, and the small business loan/grant program resumes with accepting applications starting Monday, April 27.

Although the White House suggested census takers be engaged to help with epidemiology contact tracing of COVID-19 cases, El Paso County Public Health has no plans to do that. “Currently, several UCCS Beth-El nursing students have been volunteering their services to assist EPCPH in contact tracing,” a spokesperson said.

Speaking of Public Health, its board voted on March 25 to transfer $500,000 from its emergency reserve fund to its annual budget of $18.7 million budget to boost funding for its response to the coronavirus. That response has included hiring additional personnel. The county also plans to seek reimbursement from FEMA for its COVID-related costs, for which it could recoup up to 75 percent of those costs.

“With the foresight of our Board of Health and agency leadership, planning for emergency reserve funding and utilization of our continuity of operations and leveraging of community partnerships for Human Resources for expertise and response, we are positioned well through 2020,” Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said in an email through a spokesperson.

Sen. Michael Bennet announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, through the Health Resources and Services Administration’s Small Rural Hospital Improvement Program, has awarded $3.2 million for Colorado’s rural hospitals to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The funds were included in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Rural hospitals are in dire shape, Colorado Rural Health Center CEO Michelle Mills said in the release, noting 18 rural hospitals were already running in the red before the pandemic struck.

The Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC notes in a release that 40 percent of the local economy revolves around national security and the military, so those businesses haven’t taken a big hit during the COVID pandemic. The chamber also is urging businesses to sign up for its innovating the workplace during an economic disruption panel discussion next week. You can learn more here.

The extended sign up period for Connect for Colorado Health, the state’s exchange for health insurance, ends April 30.

Blackhat Distillery in Colorado Springs is making a special blend of sanitizer and giving to local hospitals and first responders. “We made a very special blend for hospitals, 1st responders, and charities,” company president Joe Koscove says in a news release. “It is 90%+ of alcohol and is far superior to anything you can buy and far better than the WHO recommends.”

Finally, for all the TV news addicts who’ve been getting a steady dose of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, the National Bobblehead Hall of Fame and Museum unveiled a bobblehead of him. “We will be donating $5 from every Governor Cuomo Bobblehead sold to the Protect The Heroes fund in support of the 100 Million Mask Challenge, which is the same cause that the Hall of Fame and Museum has raised over $160,000 for through the sale of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx bobbleheads,” the Hall of Fame said in a release.