Arapahoe County's residents have reined in the spread of the coronavirus enough to prevent the state from rolling back the county's progress on reopening — as long as it stays on the right course.
The state so far has not revoked the county's waiver from Colorado's restrictions on crowd sizes at businesses and places of worship.
Also known as a “variance,” the exception allows counties a break from some of the state's restrictions on activities and businesses aimed at containing COVID-19.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was expected to make a decision on the county's variance in the first week of August, said Luc Hatlestad, a county spokesman. A permanent decision hadn't arrived as of Aug. 20, but it appears the county can tentatively continue under its variance rules.
“CDPHE has not guaranteed anything but has expressed its willingness to allow us to continue along our current path, pending any changes in case numbers,” Hatlestad said.
Gyms, restaurants, places of worship and the county's only indoor mall — the Town Center at Aurora, near East Alameda Avenue and Interstate 225 — received expanded capacity under the state's June 29 approval of Arapahoe County's variance request.
In mid-July, about one-fourth of Colorado's counties were notified that the virus' trend has become intense enough that their variances must be reconsidered, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment.
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 public-health department 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 terms of the state's "safer at home" order with no variances. Several of the smaller counties decided to do so.
In mid-July, Colorado issued a statewide order requiring people to wear masks in public indoor spaces and began a two-week pause on accepting any new variance applications.
The state resumed processing variances starting with communities with low or no COVID-19 transmission, according to an Aug. 11 state public-health department statement.
The state put Arapahoe County on notice because its COVID-19 test-positivity rates approached 5%.
As of July 20, by one metric — known as the 14-day “rolling” rate — positivity stood at 4.9%, according to a letter from the county to businesses that urged them to help turn the trend around.
“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 variance's 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.”
The county is “trending toward” the state's conditions for keeping its variance, Hatlestad said. Generally, the conditions include meeting certain benchmarks for low rates of new COVID-19 cases and a county's trend in hospitalizations, according to the state's COVID-19 website.
“While our variance remains in place, we're continuing to implement our mitigation plan and monitor the continuing decline,” Hatlestad said.
The county submitted a mitigation plan to the department on July 20 that, among other steps, included:
• Educating county residents to stay home when sick or when they have been in close contact with a COVID-19 case.
• A public information campaign to increase awareness of the county's COVID-19 statistics.
• Continuing to work with the state to distribute personal protective equipment, or PPE, to health care personnel and other frontline workers.
• Conducting weekly business roundtables with public-health experts to address industry and site-specific questions, which the county hoped would increase attention to detail regarding cleaning, distancing, mask-wearing and flow of patrons.
Asked what fueled the decline of COVID-19's spread in the county over the past few weeks, Hatlestad said: “Our residents and visitors are doing an excellent job of following best practices such as maintaining social distancing and frequent hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings outside the home.”
The proportion of people wearing masks in public in Arapahoe County was estimated at 99%, according to Tri-County Health Department, which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. That number was recorded during the week of Aug. 9, the most recent data available as of Aug. 22. Tri-County collects that data by observing crowds at “local facilities,” according to the agency's website.
Businesses have been pitching in to maintain the county's variance as well, Hatlestad said.
“We've fielded many calls and emails from business owners double-checking to make sure they're doing everything correctly,” Hatlestad said. “And we'll be pushing a lot of 'keep it up' messaging over the next few weeks to encourage and remind people to not let their guard down over the Labor Day weekend.”
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