Members of the class of 2020 sit 8 feet apart from each other Saturday, April 18, 2020, during the graduation at the Air Force Academy. The graduation was a closed ceremony at the center of campus to allow the cadets to stay 8 feet apart. (Courtesy pool photographer Christian Murdock)

By Pam Zubeck

As El Paso County tallied 145 new COVID-19 cases and four deaths in the last week, county commissioners voted on May 5 to seek the state’s permission to allow local schools to hold  graduation ceremonies in the coming weeks.

But each school must submit a plan to the county’s Public Health Department, detailing how its graduation would be carried out to minimize risk of infections. COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, for which there is no cure, has killed more than 70,000 nationwide.

On May 5, the state reported 17,364 cases, 2,919 hospitalizations and 903 deaths, while the county chalked 1,072 (50 in the past two days) cases, 214 hospitalizations and 78 deaths, a gain of just two in the past two days.

Commissioners voted 4 to 0, with Holly Williams absent, to seek a waiver from Gov. Jared Polis to allow graduations. If approved, the waiver would enable 15 school districts, private, charter and religious schools to hold in-person graduations.

“It’s a normalcy for families and their lives moving forward,” Commissioner Chair Mark Waller said. “It’s a graduation. It’s a population that can handle this. This is a complete no-brainer in terms of support. It’s something that needs to happen and hopefully a precursor for us being able to do other things.”

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Cheyenne Mountain School District 12 Superintendent Walt Cooper, who chairs the Pikes Peak Area Superintendents Association, told commissioners that members of the association hope “to be able to honor our seniors in a ceremony that was as meaningful and memorable to them as possible, understanding our traditional graduation would not be allowed.”

Some of the rules imposed by Public Health include holding ceremonies outside, hosting students with minimal staff on hand, keeping those in attendance six feet apart and accommodating a “no-contact procedure for receipt of the diploma.”

Read all the rules here:

El Paso County Coroner Dr. Leon Kelly, who’s working with Public Health during the pandemic, said he, school districts, hospitals and others have worked for three weeks to come up with a plan to maintain safety from the virus while allowing graduating seniors to have their moment in the sun.

“We feel comfortable we can make this happen with community partners,” he said. “If Public Health deems it not safe, we can pull the plug on it.”

He noted that teens are seen as the lowest at-risk category; the virus is more deadly to older age groups.

To qualify for a waiver, a county must have experienced a declining number of cases and deaths over a 14-day period, and have secured approval from health care systems within the county, as well as from Public Health. The county’s numbers have trended downward in recent weeks.

“Everybody’s bought into this variance we’re asking permission for,” Kelly said.

After Waller noted that applying doesn’t guarantee approval by Polis, Kelly noted that guidelines issued by the governor May 4 closely mirror the county’s requirements.

Commissioner Stan VanderWerf backed the waiver, the county’s first, but told Public Health officials he wants faster action on getting businesses open to offset the economic devastation of mandatory closures imposed in March to combat the virus.

“This took three weeks to get to,” VanderWerf said of the graduation guidelines. “It’s just my firm belief we have to go faster than that on other variances, because of the economic harm that continues to take place. We’ve got to figure out how to make that negotiation [with businesses and other partners] and go as fast as we can. When you’re in a crisis, things should not happen in weeks, but in days or maybe in hours. That’s the kind of thinking we have to pay attention to.”

Earlier in the briefing, Kelly told commissioners that hospitals are in “excellent shape” for capacity and personal protective equipment, one of the criteria for allowing more businesses to open at greater or full strength.

But the county didn’t get to this point without cooperation from citizens, he noted; nor will it maintain that success without it.

“Personal responsibility doesn’t mean I get to do whatever I want without consequences,” Kelly said. “The reality is if people don’t do what they’re supposed to do, it can hinder our ability to move forward. So we truly are in this together.”

Kelly hinted that the county might be ready to seek a waiver to re-open restaurants by the “middle of the second half of May.” And Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said she’s working with the restaurant industry to put in place protective measures to allow their re-opening.

Waller made a lengthy statement early in the meeting noting that commissioners, all of whom are Republicans, strive to protect the public from disease, keep the economy going and guard civil liberties. But they represent all people, not just those who want to do as they please without using sanitizer, social distancing or wearing masks, as well as those who wish for an extended shutdown to protect against infection.

“I’m hearing from both sides of ‘We, the people,'” he said. But he reminded the public that commissioners are largely impotent to do anything. “State government is driving this bus, and they’ve given us very limited authority,” he said.

Waller, who’s often critical of Polis, a Democrat, accused the governor of shunning El Paso County’s desires, saying, “You want to talk about arrogance, loads of arrogance from the governor’s office. We push back absolutely as hard as we can. At this point he has decided he needs no input from us. He seems to be saying, ‘I don’t care what El Paso County thinks it can do.'”

Polis has already granted waivers some weeks ago to Mesa and Eagle counties, but it’s worth noting that Polis’ May 4 announcement of his new advisory panel on COVID-19 includes no one from El Paso County. From a release:

Today, the Governor appointed members of an advisory committee to advise the Governor and CDPHE on policies and regulations that are designed to maximize social distancing at the local level, specifically focused on how local governments, and local public health can coordinate with the state on educating the public about these regulations, and maximizing compliance and enforcement. We also took care to ensure that communities large and small, and areas across our state are represented so we can make this work for every community.

Today, the Governor announced the bipartisan membership of the board:

County Commissioner representing over 250K residents – Steve Johnson, Larimer
County Commissioner representing under 250K residents – Hilary Cooper, San Miguel
Mayor representing City over 100K residents – Nick Gradisar, Pueblo
Mayor representing City under 100K residents – Barbara Bynum, Montrose
Local Public Health Official in County Over 100K residents- Robert McDonald, City and County of Denver
Local Public Health in County Under 100K residents – Heath Harmon, Eagle County
A County Sheriff – Jeffery Shrader, Jefferson County
A Local Police Chief – Gary Creager, Broomfield
A Local Fire Chief – Thomas DeMint, Poudre Fire Department
One Representative of the Economic Recovery and Stabilization Council – Kyle Martinez, Olathe
Governor’s Chief of Staff – Lisa Kaufmann
Executive Director of Colorado Department of Public Safety (CDPS)- Stan Hilkey
Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) – Jill Ryan
Executive Director of the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA) – Patty Salazar

Read the resolution adopted by commissioners:

In other news:

American Furniture Warehouse is, so far, the only recipient of a cease-and-desist order issued by Public Health regarding violation of public health orders associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Public Health spokesperson Michelle Hewitt says via email, the order was issued April 28 because the store remained open to the public but was considered a non-essential business and prior efforts to gain compliance were unsuccessful. However, after receiving the order, the furniture store did comply.

Here’s the order:

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is calling on the Pentagon to discipline a senior military chaplain at the largest overseas U.S. military base, Army Garrison Humphreys in South Korea, for sending unsolicited copies of fundamentalist preacher John Piper’s book, Coronavirus and Christ, to subordinate chaplains, promoting the book’s message that the coronavirus is God’s judgment for sins, including homosexuality. Complaints to MRFF came from 22 Christian chaplains who received the book.

LabCorp announced via news release that it offers COVID-19 antibody blood tests nationwide through patient service centers and physician offices. There are no upfront, out-of-pocket costs to people who receive an order for a test through a doctor or healthcare provider.

Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, joined his colleagues in urging President Donald Trump to  amend his executive order about the reopening of meat processing facilities. They ask that the order mandate that meat processing facilities reopen only after they have met health and safety guidelines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration  and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Pikes Peak Community Foundation Emergency Relief Fund said it’s handed out more than $1 million in 54 grants to nonprofits in El Paso and Teller Counties.

Evans Army Community Hospital at Fort Carson will resume some in-person primary care services at Ivy Clinic and the Pediatric Clinic starting May 18. Those services were reduced in March due to the pandemic. “We recognize that there are significant developmental milestones, immunizations and certain preventative screening tests that require a face-to-face visit,” said Dr. Erika Overbeek Wager, Department of Primary Care chief. “We can continue to safely provide high-quality virtual care to our beneficiary population while carefully booking our necessary face-to-face visits.”

El Paso County Parks Department announced May 5 that COVID-19 closures of restaurant dining rooms has triggered postponement of all parties for parks events, though the county’s parks and trails remain open.