Arapahoe County asks for businesses' help in saving variance

Exemption from COVID-19 rules, which allowed larger crowds, is at risk of being revoked


As the coronavirus' spread worsens in Arapahoe County, leaders hope businesses that benefitted from an exemption to the state's social distancing rules will take greater precautions to prevent losing progress on reopening.

“We need your cooperation and assistance to help reverse the trend by encouraging your staff and patrons to follow the established variance guidelines as closely as possible,” says a letter from the county to the industries that were included in the exemption.

Those are gyms, restaurants, houses of worship and the county's only indoor mall — the Town Center at Aurora, near East Alameda Avenue and Interstate 225.

Also known as a “variance,” the exception allows counties around the state to tweak the state's restrictions on activities and businesses in Colorado's safer-at-home order, the policy that came after the stay-at-home order.

In mid-July, about one-fourth of Colorado's counties stood to lose progress on reopening after the coronavirus' spread appeared to grow more concerning, putting at risk their variances.

When the virus' spread in a county shifts from low or medium to high — based on benchmarks the state outlines — a county must submit a plan to bring transmission levels back down. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment then monitors the county's COVID-19 case counts for two weeks and may alter or remove the variance if deemed necessary.

Instead of submitting a mitigation plan, counties also can choose to return to the safer-at-home order with no variances. Several of the smaller counties decided to do so.

Businesses must follow guidelines

But Arapahoe County wants to stay on the reopening path. What put the county on notice was that it came up against a key condition of the variance: COVID-19 test-positivity rates increase above 5%.

As of July 20, by one metric — known as the 14-day “rolling” rate — positivity stood at 4.9%, according to the county's letter to businesses.

“We need all local businesses to redouble their efforts to monitor, track and enforce the guidelines established by the variance,” the letter said.

In addition to frequent hand-washing and wearing masks, the guidelines include the following:

• Gyms, restaurants and houses of worship each may allow for 50% of the posted occupancy code, not to exceed more than 175 people, in a confined indoor space with a minimum of 6-foot distancing.

• Restaurants and houses of worship may work with their local authorities to determine how many people they may have in an outdoor space.

• For the Aurora mall, the state public-health department said the county's request of 30% building capacity “does not include a total person limit, other than what is calculated using a ratio of one person per 55 square feet.” Based on the state's variance approval, the total limit for an indoor mall for any confined indoor space is 175 people. The state also stressed that “it is critical for the common spaces within the indoor mall to be well-managed … to mitigate gatherings above 10 people and keep traffic flow moving.”

If the Tri-County Health Department determines that certain county- and industry-specific conditions occur, Tri-County Health or the state can revoke the exemptions, which could result in further business closures, the letter says. Those conditions include the following:

• A substantial increase in hospitalizations directly related to COVID-19 over a two-week period.

• Inability of Tri-County Health to conduct investigation of new cases within 24 hours of a known positive test result.

• If a business or operation experiences an outbreak, Tri-County Health must trace it back to a specific business or operation, and that business or operation must temporarily close and review reopening protocols. 

To date, the county has not experienced any of the above conditions related to the variance, the letter says.

Mitigation plan

The county submitted a mitigation plan to CDPHE on July 20, and that's also when the clock started for the state's two-week period of monitoring COVID-19's spread in the county. The state will make a decision on Arapahoe's variance in the first week of August, said Luc Hatlestad, a county spokesman.

The county's mitigation plan includes the following steps, among others:

• Educate county residents to stay home when sick or when they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. The county will help further educate the public by providing a new page on its website with “all COVID-19 educational data with full transparency and consequences,” the plan says.

• Produce a public information campaign to increase awareness of the county's COVID-19 statistics, including offering analysis in a public forum. The county hopes the move will increase use of face coverings among residential population.

• Continue to work with the state to distribute personal protective equipment, or PPE, to health care personnel and other frontline workers, expanding availability to frontline workers and businesses that may struggle to access supply chains.

• To sustain business operations: To cope with stress, encourage people to take breaks from the news, take care of their bodies, take time to unwind and connect with others, the county plans to engage mental and behavioral health providers to promote healthy work-from-home and physical distance strategies.

• Conduct weekly business roundtables with public health experts to address industry and site-specific questions, which the county hopes will increase attention to detail regarding cleaning, distancing, mask-wearing and flow of patrons.

The county also had planned to submit another variance for indoor and outdoor event capacity and entertainment venues, similar to the initial 50% capacity requested for industries in the previous variance. That plan was based on requests from our cities and industries, Hatlestad said.

Based on the county's data tracking, officials decided it wasn't prudent to move forward at this time, Hatlestad said.


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