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Counties await decision after applying for variances

El Paso, Fremont, & Teller discuss variances
Counties await decision after applying for variances
Posted at 12:23 AM, May 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-14 08:06:40-04

SOUTHERN COLORADO — Many counties in Colorado believe they are ready to reopen and should not have to wait on the rest of the state to start. News5 spoke with three different southern Colorado counties about the process of applying for variances from the safer-at-home order and what exactly they are asking for from the state.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller said they have submitted one application for a variance about allowing high school graduations to happen. Waller said that variance was submitted to the state on Thursday, May 7.

"I talked to him [Gov. Jared Polis] last Friday and told him that we had submitted the variance, and he made it sound like 'yes, we're expecting it, we're ready to go, we'll sign off on it soon.' But, here we are, four or five days into this cumbersome process and don't have an answer to it yet. We need to know what he's going to allow us to do or not do, so high schools can get on with the planning phase, and parents and families can get on with planning as well," said Waller.

Waller also told News5 the El Paso County Commissioners are voting on another variance on Thursday. That variance, if approved, would allow limited in-person dining at restaurants.

"No doubt in my mind that we're going to pass this, and pass it quickly. We need to be moving quicker, and I think the state needs to be moving quicker, the governor needs to be moving quicker, to open things back up," said Waller.

Waller explained the process of putting together these proposals, which he said starts with the health department. They then present it to the local hospitals, which determine if they could handle a surge in their capacity if that were to be a consequence of any of the activities being requested to reopen.

"We have not heard from the hospitals yet on the restaurant variance. And so, we're voting on it as a board tomorrow, in hopes that the hospitals are going to certify this, and we're going to be able to get it off to the state sooner rather than later," said Waller.

Once the variance for restaurants is submitted, Waller said they will begin working on one for religious institutions.

Both Waller and a Fremont County Commissioner, Debbie Bell, said the state originally told them these variance applications would take around three days to be approved or denied. However, News5 reached out to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who said the variance approval process takes about a week. While variances are pending, counties must abide by the state's safer-at-home order.

As of Wednesday, CDPHE's website shows four counties have been approved for their variances. One of those counties is Mesa County. News5 asked a representative of the county how long it took for their variance to be approved, and they said a little over a week. However, Mesa County said it happened fairly quickly, and the state worked with their health department to iron out the details.

CDPHE also told News5 they will only share information on approved variances, and will not discuss those pending. Therefore, the state did not report an exact tally for how many counties have applied. So, News5 reached out to Colorado Counties Inc. (CCI) who gave a rough idea of how many counties may have applied. According to CCI's data, 17 counties have currently applied, which does not include the four already approved. However, they stress that number is based purely on what counties have reported to them, and may not be exact.

Fremont County Commissioner Debbie Bell said she serves as a board member for CCI. Bell said they had a board meeting on Tuesday, where she "found out that they [CDPHE] are very backlogged, because so many other counties throughout the state are also submitting the same thing. So, I think they're a little bit overwhelmed right now. So we completely understand that, and we want them to take the time they need to look at it, to really understand what it is Fremont County is asking for."

Bell said Fremont County submitted their variance on Wednesday, May 6. Their variance included a list of industries they would like to reopen, most of which at 30% capacity. Those include restaurants, places of worship, fitness facilities, recreation facilities, and outfitting. Bell said they will all obey strict social distancing measures, and will clean between every customer. Right now, the county has no hard numbers on the financial impact of the virus, but Bell said the impact has been devastating. She said regardless of the variance, she knows it will not be business as usual for a while.

According to Bell, Fremont County has had 19 positive cases of COVID-19, adding one new case on Wednesday. Bell said there have been no deaths.

Another county which has submitted a variance is Teller County. Teller County Commissioner Norm Steen said their variance asks for restaurants, casinos, bars, gymnasiums, outdoor recreation, and other public meeting places to start reopening. Steen said the application was submitted on May 8, and has not been approved yet.

Steen told News5 Teller County has had 31 total cases of COVID-19, and currently has no active cases. He said that's a big reason for their application. "Low incidence, strong capability to respond, and a very flat curve. We've never had more than two cases in a single day since inception," said Steen.

One of the industries Teller County hopes to open sooner than the rest of the state are the casinos. "Social distancing is the prevailing rule. So, a table where people would be required to stand close to one another probably would not be open. The roulette tables same thing. The machines could probably get some distance, or maybe every other one shut down for example. Lots of ways the casinos could open," said Steen.

Steen also said the restrictions are hurting Colorado in a different way than the virus. "There are real consequences for delaying. Certainly we're protecting the physical health, but the economic health, the mental health, the wellbeing of the state of Colorado is very much at risk," said Steen.

News5 also sat in on a virtual press conference with Polis and asked about the variances.

"There's a number of other applications that are in and we want to make sure that those are evaluated and approved as quickly as possible, because no one should have to be closed a day longer than absolutely necessary," Polis said.

CLICK HERE to learn more about variances.