Colorado 'dial 3.0' makes big step toward reopening, moves many counties to green

Final dial rules could mark state's largest change since stay-at-home order ended


In what may amount to Colorado's largest step toward reopening since the statewide stay-at-home order ended, the state saw nearly half of its counties move to the lowest level on the state's “dial” system of restrictions.

The state's color-coded COVID-19 dial is the set of restrictions counties must follow based on the local spread of the virus. The system affects capacity at restaurants, other businesses, indoor and outdoor events, and other settings. Colorado originally implemented the dial on Sept. 15.

Among the dial's six levels, green is the least restrictive. Purple, the most restrictive level, is a stay-at-home order.

Only a few counties had qualified for level green — also known as the “protect our neighbors” stage — in the past.

But when the latest changes to Colorado's system of restrictions — dubbed “dial 3.0” — took effect on March 24, counties scattered across the state moved to level green. Twenty-eight of the state's 64 counties were in that level as of March 26. At that point, Gilpin was the only Denver-area county operating in green.

What's more, dial 3.0 also removed most restrictions in level green altogether. Bars and indoor events must still adhere to a 50% capacity limit or a 500-person cap, whichever is fewer. The update also made it easier for counties to move into level green.

The update also relaxed restrictions for certain businesses in other counties.

The move to dial 3.0 could be Colorado's largest step in reopening since the statewide stay-at-home order ended last April. It's likely that no other state public-health order or dial update since then has resulted in so many counties seeing such a large increase in capacity levels, according to the state public-health department.

State officials expect that dial 3.0 will remain in effect until mid-April, at which point the state plans to retire the dial and implement a new public health order that gives local public health agencies greater control over what restrictions to enforce, according to a March 23 news release.

On March 19, the state released a draft of the dial 3.0 policies, and Coloradans were able to submit feedback by March 22.

Here's a breakdown of the final dial 3.0 policies.

Bars back after long haul

Among the most notable changes is that bars that do not have full-service kitchens can now open in level-blue counties. The opening of those bars comes after roughly a year of remaining closed for in-person service.

Bars that function with a full-service kitchen or provide food from a licensed retail food establishment, such as a neighboring restaurant or food truck, were able to open along with restaurants as of May 27, according to a state fact sheet. But others remained closed to the public.

On June 18, the state announced bars could open at 25% occupancy or 50 patrons, whichever is less. That change also included other drinking establishments, such as breweries, distillery pubs and clubs.

What followed was a quick reversal: Just 12 days after allowing bars and nightclubs to open in-person service, a concerning uptick in COVID-19 cases fueled by young Coloradans prompted state officials to close the establishments again.

“There were several factors that went into the decision to close bars again regretfully,” said a statement from the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department. “Top among them was evidence that the environments resulted in higher-risk behavior that could lead to increased disease spread.”

Now, bars can open in level blue at 25% capacity or 75 people, whichever is fewer.

That would include other drinking establishments, such as breweries, distillery pubs and nightclubs, according to the state information center.

Many counties are in blue, including some in the Denver metro area. See a map that shows each county's dial level and what restrictions apply to each level here.

The level a county qualifies for on the dial generally depends on the county's rate of new cases, its percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, and whether hospitalizations are increasing, stable or declining.

Bars without full-service kitchens that don't provide food from a licensed retail food establishment have been able to open in counties that are in level green, but only a few counties had qualified for level green in the past.

Personal gatherings limit lifted

A less-talked-about aspect of Colorado's COVID-19 restrictions lately is the limit on personal gatherings.

The restriction was the same across blue, yellow and orange — the dial's middle levels. The state allowed up to 10 people from no more than two households, although it's the type of regulation where officials generally must rely on voluntary compliance.

The dial 3.0 changes would do away with that limit in most cases.

“There is no longer a state limit on personal gathering sizes. The state will follow (federal) CDC's guidance on personal gatherings,” the state public-health department said in a news release. “The CDC still strongly recommends avoiding larger gatherings and crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

For level orange, the limit is still listed as up to 10 people from no more than two households. The state lists “none” as the personal gathering size for levels red and purple.

Changes in level blue

Retail, offices, and noncritical manufacturing in level blue may now open to 75% capacity, up from 50% previously.

Outdoor events in levels green and blue no longer have state-level capacity restrictions under the dial. Counties may choose to implement capacity restrictions on outdoor events at the local level, the news release said.

All restaurants in level blue may technically operate at 100% capacity with 6 feet between parties, but it's not a complete lifting. Similarly, all gyms in level blue may operate at 100% capacity with 6 feet between parties.

“The state expects that maintaining a 6-foot distancing requirement will be a limiting factor for most indoor spaces,” the news release said.

Under the “dial 2.0” changes to Colorado's restrictions on Feb. 6, the state public-health department drastically eased the limits on incidence rates — rates of new cases — that allow counties to remain in certain levels of the dial. The arrival of the “dial 2.0” system had moved Denver metro counties down to level yellow from level orange.

As of the Feb. 6 changes, counties qualify for level blue, in part, when they maintain enough days below 100 new cases per 100,000 people.

A county's number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people within one week is known as its incidence rate.

The state announced even further changes on March 8 that included adding a new “disease incidence metric buffer.” The “buffer” change allowed counties to exceed their dial level's incidence rate limit and still remain in the same level as long as counties do not exceed the minimum of the next dial level's incidence rate by more than 15% for five consecutive days, according to a news release.

5-Star business, blue and yellow update

Under the dial 3.0 changes, 5-Star-certified restaurants and gyms in levels blue and yellow may technically operate at 100% capacity with 6 feet between parties.

Additionally, 5-Star-certified seated and unseated indoor events may operate at 50% capacity or 500 people, whichever is fewer, in level blue.

All other 5-Star-certified businesses not mentioned above in level blue may operate with an additional 50 people above the normal capacity cap.

Five-Star-certified seated indoor events in level yellow may operate at 50% capacity or 225 people, whichever is fewer. Five-Star-certified unseated indoor events in Level Yellow may operate at 50% capacity or 175 people, whichever is fewer. 

Notably, 5-Star-certified outdoor events in levels blue and yellow now have no capacity limits and are subject to local restrictions only.

Colorado's 5-Star State Certification Program allows businesses to operate with expanded capacity if they follow stepped-up COVID-19 safety protocols, generally letting businesses follow restrictions that are one level lower on the dial than they otherwise would be able to without certification.

Read more about the program here.

Businesses with 5-Star certification may not operate in the next lowest level below blue — level green — unless the county is formally in that level.

Level green looser, easier to reach

The dial 3.0 update changed the metrics for green, making it easier for counties to achieve. Now, counties qualify for that “protect our neighbors” level if they have up to 35 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — up from 15 previously.

Most restrictions in level green are now removed. Bars and indoor events must still adhere to a 50% capacity limit or a 500-person cap, whichever is fewer.

Counties no longer need to apply for level green and will be moved into green once they maintain the appropriate metrics for at least one week.

Moving to level green now generally depends on hospitalizations, incidence rate and test-positivity rate rather than the previous process, which involved eight criteria.

Some counties were in level green when their incidence rates appeared to be too high, according to the state's COVID-19 website. But for counties with populations under 30,000, the state uses case counts instead of incidence rates, the state information center said.

In level green, establishments with capacity restrictions include bars, smoking lounges, indoor events and camps; there are no capacity limits for outdoor organized sports, but there are capacity limits on indoor organized sports. 

More opening in April

After mid-April, the state public-health department expects to allow local public health agencies to assume more control over capacity restrictions.

The draft dial 3.0 policy mentioned a statewide public health order that would take effect to continue limits on indoor unseated mass gatherings.

It would “maintain public health guidelines for indoor, high-risk environments,” possibly at a limit of “50% (capacity) not to exceed 500 people,” the draft policy said. It appeared that limit would apply to indoor events and last until at least mid-May, according to the policy.

Previously, the state had said dial 3.0 would occur in the spring and that another dial update was expected for the summer. Given the newly announced April change, it appears there would not be another update in the summer.

Asked about that possibility, the state information center's response only reiterated that the dial was to become optional for local areas to follow in April.

Update: This story initially reported that no other state public-health order or dial update since the statewide stay-at-home order ended has resulted in such a large increase in capacity levels as the dial 3.0 system has. Although the state public-health department confirmed that, it is difficult to quantify how each update to state restrictions has affected each sector given that 6-foot distancing must be maintained in many cases — even if, for example, 100% capacity is technically allowed. The story has been updated to reflect that.

Colorado, dial 3.0, COVID-19, level green, bars, Ellis Arnold


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