By Pam Zubeck
El Paso County has snagged $127.5 million in federal money for its response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the Board of County Commissioners announced on April 28.
While the county will keep 55 percent of that, or $84.4 million, the rest will be distributed to municipalities within the county. The biggest recipient among those will be Colorado Springs, which will get $37.5 million.
(The state of Colorado received $2.23 billion.)
The money comes from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act adopted by Congress and signed by the president March 27.
Here’s the breakdown of the rest of the local money:
Green Mountain Falls: $68,413
Manitou Springs: $431,381
Palmer Lake: $221,154
However, there are restrictions. It must be spent on expenses incurred after March 1 due to the public health emergency with respect to COVID–19 and cannot be spent to offset lost revenues or on some expense that already was in the 2020 budget.
• Medical expenses for response to COVID-19, such as hospitals and temporary medical facilities.
• Public health expenses, including communications, personal protective equipment for health and safety workers, disinfection of public facilities.
• Payroll costs for public safety, public health, health care, human services and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 public health emergency.
• Expenses of actions to facilitate compliance with COVID-19-related public health measures.
• Economic support (expenditures related to grants to small businesses).
During a news briefing April 28, Commission Chairman Mark Waller said the county would disclose in detail how the money is spent.
“We are going to be incredibly transparent and account for every dollar that gets spent, whether it goes to the private sector or to a government agency,” he said.
Likewise, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers made the same pledge.
“Yes, we’ll absolutely be accountable,” he said. “Every dime we spend, if you go to the city website, you can track every check the city writes.”
Both Waller and Suthers also expressed support for Gov. Jared Polis’ “safer-at-home” initiative, effective April 27 after his earlier “stay-at-home” order expired April 26.
That order allows:
• Curbside retail to begin April 27 as well as real estate showings, but no open houses.
• Retail and some personal services to open on May 1, with best social-distancing practices.
• Offices to reopen May 4 at 50 percent capacity and with social-distancing best practices
Despite that, Waller appeared committed to not throwing the doors open to all commerce without following the protocols established in the governor’s orders. Those allow counties and cities to seek waivers to his orders, but only with sustained declines in COVID cases over a period of time and with the sanction of both Public Health and local hospital systems.
“There are a lot of competing interests we have to think about,” he said. “No. 1 is: What’s in the best interest of the health of our community? If there’s something that can be opened and still keep community safety and health, we should explore those ideas.
“I don’t anticipate a blanket request to open everything up and have a free-for-all,” Waller added. “We are absolutely exploring every single avenue to get folks back to work, that’s for sure.”
Suthers said, “We’ve gotten outstanding advice from the local health department, working with the state health department, and the CDCs, and I, for one as a public official, am going to listen to our local health department rather than those isolated voices out there.”
Suthers said the news is mostly good for El Paso County.
While the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported 13,879 cases, 2,485 hospitalizations and 706 deaths, El Paso County has seen 899 cases and 69 deaths, according to the county’s Public Health agency.
Hospitalizations stood at 205, less than 10 percent of the statewide figure, Suthers said, noting that’s “far, far less than our proportion of the state.”
But the county recorded its highest single-day death toll just days ago, on April 23, at 11.
Still, cases per 100,000 people in El Paso County are dramatically lower than in other counties, and both Waller and Suthers credited citizens’ compliance with stay-home and safer-at-home orders.
In other news:
• President Donald Trump said he would order meat packing plants to remain open amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The JBS Greeley plant in Weld County closed April 10 due to several employee coronavirus cases and deaths, but reopened April 24.
• Colorado Springs Utilities reports sales in April through the 24th dropped by 4.6 percent compared to the prior year, and year to date, sales dropped 3.4 percent. Specifically, electric sales for residential customers increased by 7 percent, while non-residential customer sales declined by 2 percent, compared to the budget. That’s not surprising considering the stay-home order imposed in March.
• Polis and Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak announced April 27 their respective states have joined California, Oregon and Washington in the Western States Pact — a working group of Western state governors with a shared vision for fighting COVID-19.
• Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, called for changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that would increase the maximum SNAP benefit by 15 percent and provide more funding on Native American reservations, while eliminating work requirements during recessions, and broaden eligibility so that more vulnerable families can access SNAP benefits.
• El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder’s office postponed 115 evictions due to a hold. When those rules are relaxed in several weeks, Elder predicts “we will be in the ballpark of 300 evictions behind.”
• Emergency room traffic is substantially down nationwide. According to a new poll from Morning Consult and the American College of Emergency Physicians, emergency departments are nearly empty, and 29 percent of American adults say that they have delayed or avoided medical care because they are concerned about contracting COVID-19.
Closer to home, UCHealth, which runs city-owned Memorial Hospitals, issued a release noting “an alarming decrease” in ER patients who are more sick when they do show up, which raises concerns that people are either waiting too long to seek care for emergencies or not calling 911. “UCHealth is concerned that people are hesitating to come to emergency rooms for fear of COVID-19 or not wanting to contribute to overwhelming hospitals unnecessarily,” the release said, noting that patients can be assured it’s safe to seek treatment in the ER.
“The likelihood of dying from delayed treatment of common conditions is far higher than dying from COVID related illness,” Dr. Richard Zane, chief innovation officer for UCHealth and chair of emergency medicine for the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said in the release.
• The Downtown Partnership is promoting Social Distance Saturdays, which begin May 1. It’s a by-appointment opportunity for a “unique and intimate shopping experience” that supports local businesses while maintaining proper social distancing. People can sign up for 20-minute private gallery and shopping excursions offered every Saturday in May.
• The state has received $10.3M from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide additional funding for epidemiological work and lab testing in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
• A pet dog in North Carolina is believed to be the first to test positive for COVID-19 in the United States, according to Time.
• Finally, the novel coronavirus has brought out the giving spirit in the community. The latest example is Firehouse Subs. In partnership with the Firehouse Subs Public Safety Foundation, local franchisee Mike Reed provided 215 meals to feed nurses and doctors at UCHealth Hospital. Inspired by the donation, Dublin Commons Shopping Center donated an additional 215 Firehouse Subs meals to the hospital, resulting in 430 meals provided to local heroes at UCHealth, Firehouse said in a release. Since March 18, Firehouse and its community partners has donated some 54,500 meals nationwide to health care workers and first responders on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals and families in need, and seniors who are unable to leave their homes.