By Pam Zubeck
El Paso County commissioners voted unanimously on June 9 to submit a variance request to reopen businesses ranging from gyms to theaters to tourist attractions under local authority.
That means that while certain rules will apply, El Paso County Public Health, not the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, would determine when to apply opening orders broadly or narrowly based on metrics of local conditions.
“EPC Public Health believes that it is well-positioned to respond to local conditions and implement focused local public health responses to such conditions,” the application reads.
The request comes as the state’s new cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, continue to decline day-by-day. On June 8, the most recent for which numbers were available, the state reported 28,339 cases; 1,291 deaths due to COVID-19 and 1,547 deaths of people who had COVID-19.
In El Paso County, 99 people have died of the virus and 1,885 have tested positive. But new cases have surged every day since May 31 when only 4 were reported. On June 8, 19 new cases were tallied.
El Paso County’s variance request is the first time a county in Colorado has sought permission to act as its own authority in dictating opening and closure rules.
The application would allow reopening of gyms and fitness, dance, exercise or group classes; martial arts classes, exercise studios and centers; recreation centers and other indoor facilities; athletic training facilities, including Olympics venues; movie theaters and theaters for live performances; indoor malls; indoor and outdoor activities; attractions, defined as places of interest visited by people for their natural, cultural, educational, historical or unique entertainment value; the indoor water park at Great Wolf Lodge; libraries and small private special events.
It will not pertain to bars, taverns, brew pubs, tasting rooms, clubs; arcades, rodeos, fairs, festivals or parades.
But under the variance, which must be approved by CDPHE and Gov. Jared Polis, owners or operators of facilities, attractions and events must develop written operational and disease transmission-mitigation plans that address sanitation, distancing and other recommendations. For example, occupancy of staff and customers is limited to 50 percent of capacity or the occupancy necessary to maintain the applicable 6-foot distancing requirements, whichever is less; 6 feet must be maintained between individuals or groups at the activity or attraction, and all high-touch areas must be “regularly cleaned and disinfected,” among other things.
Employees must be monitored for symptoms of the disease and sent home if they exhibit signs of coronavirus.
Moreover, if two or more COVID-19 cases associated with any given site arise within a 14-day period, the owner/operator must cooperate with Public Health to investigate the outbreak and close temporarily as next steps are determined, which could include revising the safety plan and performing “enhanced” cleaning and disinfection.
The variance request was hailed by representatives of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and EDC, Visit COS, Citadel and Chapel Hills malls, dance instructors and the Colorado Springs Philharmonic, among many others.
But the criteria is strict. For example, malls must remove or block areas that encourage group gatherings, such as play areas and seated food court areas; promote social distancing; limit occupancy; and make disinfectant wipes available.
Public Health medical director Dr. Robin Johnson reminded the public that standard protective measures should remain the order of the day.
“Until we have a vaccine, we need to frequently wash hands, use sanitizer, cough or sneeze into your inner elbow, avoid touching your face, keep 6 feet of distancing and wear a face mask in public,” she said.
Public Health attorney Lori Seago noted, “What this local control means is authority to adjust our local regulations … either up or down, depending on that local data and the metrics we’ve developed in the county. We are the first county to request that and we’ll see how that proceeds at the state level.”
Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said businesses have told him their goal is to see “zero outbreaks.”
“That speaks to the interests our businesses have in this community, to protect their employees and patrons, perhaps even exceeding some of the requirements we’re establishing here,” he said.
PK Knickerbocker with the Pikes Peak Region Attractions Association representing 26 local tourist attractions, assured commissioners most owners are local residents with strong family ties locally who want to collaborate to achieve safe reopening. She also noted that tourism brings in billions to the local economy and millions in tax revenue.
“Our region was founded on tourism and wellness,” Doug Price with Visit COS said. “From the people at the mall and people from attractions… I stand before you today to say thank you for what you’ve done.”
Said Commissioner Holly Williams, “Hopefully, this is a big step forward and we will get back to normalcy.”
Read the variance application here.
In other news:
Colorado Springs’ sales tax report for May, reflecting taxes collected in April, the first full month of the shutdown, showed a decrease of 21.77 percent over the same period a year ago.
The Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax was down 74 percent.
The largest increases were seen in medical marijuana (41 percent), commercial machines (24 percent) and groceries (16.5 percent).
The largest declines were shown by hotels (92 percent), clothing (79 percent) and furniture and appliances (50 percent).
The YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, after closing its facilities in mid-March due to Gov. Polis’ COVID-19 executive order, will begin reopening June 15 under guidance of state and local health authorities. The phased plan will see reopening of Briargate, Downtown, First & Main, Southeast and Tri-Lakes YMCAs.
The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living sent to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency a request for $5 billion in emergency funding and support for assisted living communities in response to the pandemic. More than 42,000 assisted living facilities serve more than a million residents nationwide.
Casinos in Cripple Creek will begin reopening on June 15 under guidelines approved by CDPHE. Visitors can use the slot machines but table games will remain closed. Hotels and restaurants are open.
The Division of Youth Services secure centers’ population has been reduced by 30 percent, or 178 youth, since March 1, the Colorado Department of Human Services said in a release.
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said he would not renew the curfew he imposed on June 3 which expired on June 8, crediting “our citizens who have engaged in speech and assembly in Colorado Springs in the highest traditions of social action in America.”