DENVER – Counties along the densely-populated Front Range of Colorado are taking different approaches for when the statewide stay-at-home order expires on Sunday as the governor’s office warns that counties not in line with the “safer at home” guidance could risk losing grant money.
Denver, Jefferson and Boulder counties announced Friday morning they would be extending their specific county stay-at-home orders through May 8, and the Tri-County Health Department board voted to authorize the director to extend the stay-at-home order for Adams and Arapahoe counties through May 8 but not for Douglas County, which will move ahead with the statewide safer at home guidance, according to department spokesperson Becky O’Guin.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said in announcing the extension that he had spoken extensively with the governor and with area mayors, county commissioners and county health officials about working toward a regional approach in reopening.
Several metro-area counties extending stay-at-home orders
Gov. Jared Polis announced earlier this week that the stay-at-home order would expire statewide after Sunday and outlined a schedule for businesses to begin reopening: Retail businesses can being curbside delivery on Monday; they can reopen to in-person business on May 1 if they are prepared and starting May 4, all non-essential businesses may re-open at a 50% workforce if they have proper protocols in place.
But he made clear that counties would be able to make decisions that are best for their local communities since there are disparities in population density and medical capacities between the urban parts of Colorado and the more-rural areas.
Polis said that while some counties might be able to re-open before those dates in different capacities, they have to submit a comprehensive plan and show that cases have been on the downslope for two weeks. He said that counties can keep stricter policies in place once the statewide stay-at-home order expires but cannot be more lenient than the statewide health orders and guidance.
Jefferson County’s extension includes an exception to allow non-critical businesses to provide curbside delivery of products and for people to travel to pick up those products between now and May 9.
The executive director of the public health department said the extension is necessary because the county has not seen a decline in daily COVID-19 cases and does not have enough testing capacity or data about community compliance with the current order. He also said that the extension will allow the health department to develop and implement new strategies for a safe reopening of county businesses and facilities.
“No two communities in Colorado are the same, and each community has different needs as we look to the next stages of response to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have to consider what impact opening too soon could have on those in our community and region, and take a phased, science-based approach to reopening,” said Dr. Mark B. Johnson, Executive Director, Jefferson County Public Health. “By working together across the heavily-populated Denver Metro Area, where we have much higher rates of COVID-19, we can reduce some of the confusion and most importantly, protect the health of our residents.”
Boulder County also extended its order through May 8 and will allow, as Jefferson County is, non-critical businesses to start offering curbside delivery of products. Health officials there said the extension would also give them more time to plan out its “safer at home” phase, as well as to slow transmission of the virus and increase testing and hospital capacities.
“This extra time will allow us to ramp up our epidemiology team to continue to conduct contact tracing, focus outreach and care on disproportionately impacted communities, receive additional personal protective equipment (PPE) for our health care providers, and continue our progress on accessing testing,” said Boulder County Public Health Executive Director Jeff Zayach. “Without these elements in place, moving to the governor’s Safer-at-Home phase in Boulder County would be extremely dangerous.”
The city of Aurora issued a statement after Tri-County Health Department board decided to keep the stay-at-home orders in place through May 8 in Arapahoe and Adams counties saying it was required to follow the orders since the health department has jurisdiction.
“These decisions are outside the city of Aurora’s authority. Because the city of Aurora is not a county—unlike Denver which is both a city and county—public health matters are under the authority of the Tri-County Health Department,” the city wrote in a release. “As the local health department, they have the authority to make decisions about all public health matters for our city.”
Adams and Arapahoe counties will also allow for curbside delivery at non-critical businesses and the necessary travel.
“We want to get people back to work as soon as it is safer to do so,” said John M. Douglas, Jr., MD, Executive Director of Tri-County Health Department. “This extension in Adams and Arapahoe will give us more time to do several things: expand public health measures such as testing and contact notification, develop and implement strategies in partnership with our business community on how to safely reopen, and to encourage the public to practice social distancing and other safety measures---all of which should hopefully reduce the spread of this disease.”
Hancock announced a similar approach in extending the city and county’s order from April 30 – when it had been set to expire – through May 8. He said that ramping up testing and contact tracing capabilities over the next two weeks would be a prime goal and that the extension would give officials more time to prepare a safe reopening plan.
“We must do what we need to do now so we can do what we want to do later,” Hancock said in regard to how he came to the conclusion to extend the order, adding: “This is going to be a long marathon – one we’re going to have to run together.”
Hancock said Denver had unique challenges surrounding population density and large facilities not typically faced outside of Denver, which will make the reopening more unique, and that Denver’s infection, hospitalization and death rates suggested Denver “is not completely out of the woods.”
He said he applauded the governor’s guidance to the state to give more power to local governments to make their own decisions on keeping more stringent measures in place.
And he announced that Denver had a goal to increase testing to about 750 tests a day within the city over the next two weeks, with an end goal of soon being able to conduct 1,000 tests a day “on top of testing for those who are symptomatic.”
“Since we lack a coherent national strategy that supports mass testing, it is up to the states and local cities to do what Washington [D.C.] can’t seem to appropriately manage,” Hancock said.
He and Denver Department of Public Health Executive Director Bob McDonald said they expect the novel coronavirus will continue to impact Colorado in the year ahead and in fall and winter and called on the state’s congressional representatives to press for a thorough testing system nationwide.
Hancock said he has asked the public health department and city attorney’s office to draft an order requiring people to wear masks, as nearby Wheat Ridge has done at essential businesses. He said he expected an order to be issued sometime soon. Meanwhile, he said people in Denver should wear a mask or face covering if they are outside anywhere.
McDonald said the city was building out a workforce of 100 people to enhance testing protocols and that training for them was already underway. He and Hancock said that contact tracing, testing and getting more personal protective equipment would also be pertinent to the increased testing plan and that the extra two weeks would put the city in a “much better position.”
Hancock said part of the plan was to give employers the ability to get employees tested before returning to work if the wish to do so to ensure workplaces are safe and to give consumers confidence that they can shop safely once stores can reopen in Denver.
“This is going to be baby steps. This is going to be a phased-in process,” Hancock said, adding that the state’s formal guidance, which is expected to be released in coming days, would be a good outline for what Denver should do on May 9 to ease back into what Hancock called “some semblance of normalcy.”
“We know we can rebuild businesses and start new businesses,” he said. “What we can’t do is replace lives that have been lost.”
Weld County plans to allow businesses to reopen Monday
Meanwhile, Weld County commissioners said Friday that they plan to skirt the governor’s order that businesses should not reopen until May 1 or 4, depending on the type, and allow Weld County businesses to reopen Monday.
Weld County has the third-highest case count in the state, with 1,263 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and has seen the third-most deaths of any county in the state, with 70, including outbreaks and deaths at a long-term care facility and the JBS meatpacking plant. The county has the highest case rate of COVID-19 among Colorado counties with more than 100,000 people.
The board of commissioners issued guidelines and best practices for businesses to reopen “whenever they feel comfortable to do so” but said that it should be in the hands of the people of the county to decide what is best for them and their families.
“Weld County Government is not opening any businesses, just as Weld County Government did not close any businesses. … The same preventative measures need to be heed – we’ve said that. Expectations need to be managed – we’re doing that. What we aren’t going to do is pick winners and losers as to who gets to restart their livelihoods,” the commissioners said in a statement. “And at the end of the day, everyone has freedoms: freedom to stay home, freedom to go out, and freedom to support whatever business they want to support.”
That statement came after a spokesperson for the governor’s office said Thursday evening that counties who are out of compliance with the guidelines of “safer at home” will be in jeopardy of losing state emergency preparedness grants.
“Early identification of COVID-19 cases will help slow the spread throughout Weld county which currently has over 1,263 cases and 70 deaths in a population of just over 324,000,” spokesperson Conor Cahill said. “Weld County currently has the highest case rate of COVID-19 among Colorado counties with a population greater than 100,000. Counties who are out of compliance are in jeopardy of losing state emergency preparedness grants. The Governor has been clear that Colorado is in this together and will get through this challenging time together.”
But Greeley Mayor John Gates says the city, which is in Weld County, supports safer at home and will extend the closures of city facilities until June 2.
“Based on the medical and scientific data, and the high number of cases in Weld County, the City of Greeley strongly supports following the ‘Safer at Home’ philosophy,” Gates said in a statement. “This approach protects lives, flattens the curve, and is a step in the right direction for getting our community back to a fully operational economy.”
Eagle County, which is thought to be among the places where Colorado’s outbreak first started, was granted a variance Thursday to end its stay-at-home order before the rest of the state, and Cahill said that the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment would likely be approving Mesa County’s similar request in coming days.
Gov. Polis said at an afternoon news conference Friday that Weld County had not yet applied for such a variance and that it would need to if it intends to go forward with opening businesses ahead of schedule lest it face consequences.
He said the guidance issued by the county was “fine” but not as thorough as that of the state. And he said that if the county allows businesses to reopen before they are allowed to then they were be endangering the people of Weld County.
He said if the county’s intent was to allow businesses to reopen without social distancing guidelines and ahead of schedule that it would be “extremely dangerous” and simply put that they cannot go against the state’s rules.
He reiterated the counties that don’t follow the guidance risk losing emergency funds and that his administration would “absolutely use every mechanism we can” to enforce the public health guidance, and that businesses that reopen against the guidance could losing their state business license.
But for much of the Denver metro area, officials say there is still a way to go and that what is best for them, for now, is keeping their orders in place longer than the statewide order.
“We’re going to do what’s best for our city,” Hancock said.