Colorado to release new 'safer-at-home' COVID-19 framework

Revision would place counties under rules based on virus spread

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The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has announced plans to release an updated framework for the state's COVID-19 social-distancing policy that would make counties automatically eligible for different variance-like distancing levels — gradual easing of restrictions on crowds and activities — and possibly do away with Colorado's current system of applying for variances.

A "variance" is an exemption to state rules aimed at containing the pandemic granted to a county if it meets certain conditions.

State officials sought feedback on the new framework to help identify when counties should operate under different shades of Colorado's "safer at home" phase of social distancing, as well as when they should follow stay-at-home rules and the state's third and loosest phase, called “protect our neighbors.” That third phase, reserved for counties with notably low coronavirus spread, is likely months away for metro Denver localities.

The deadline for providing feedback was Sept. 3, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment was to update the plan based on the public's comments. The final framework was to be available shortly after the comment period, according to the news release. State officials as of Sept. 11 aren’t sure exactly when the framework is expected to be finalized, a state spokesperson said.

The vast majority of Colorado counties still operate under the safer-at-home phase, which came after the stay-at-home order this spring and allowed numerous types of businesses to reopen.

The state public-health department's new proposed framework would break the safer-at-home phase itself into three levels that counties would be placed under based on local severity of the coronavirus' spread, according to a draft of the framework linked in an Aug. 28 news release.

“We need to empower local communities with easy-to-follow guidance if we are to continue to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the department's executive director, said in the release. “We hope the dial will help provide local communities with the flexibility to move throughout the different levels of guidance as necessary to protect public health.”

State officials had heard from the public that Colorado should make recognizing local differences in rules simpler and more predictable, according to the draft.

Change in how counties qualify

For the past few months, counties have been able to apply for waivers — or variances — from certain requirements in the state's safer-at-home order, allowing for larger crowds at some types of businesses.

The new framework would do away with the ability to apply for variances unless a county is already in the least-restrictive new level of the safer-at-home phase. It's unclear how that would affect most counties with existing variances.

A spokesperson with the Colorado State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department, declined to respond to questions about whether the counties that currently have variances would be put under even less restrictive rules and whether counties that don't have variances be placed under less restrictive rules as well, citing that officials were preparing to release more information soon.

Counties could still choose to be more restrictive than what they qualify for, according to the news release.

Currently, counties with a two-week rate of up to 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people can qualify for a variance, according to the draft. Under the new framework, counties with up to 75 new cases per 100,000 people within two weeks would quality for that least-restrictive new level.

Among other items, that new level would allow for:

• 50% capacity or up to 175 people indoors at places of worship;

• 50% capacity or up to 175 people indoors at restaurants;

• 25% capacity or up to 75 people at gyms and fitness establishments;

• Perhaps most notably, a 175-person cap for indoor events and 250-person cap for outdoor events. In June, Colorado set the limits generally at up to 100 people for indoor venues and up to 175 people for outdoor venues.

By qualifying for the new level, a county would be eligible for site-specific variances — for “a unique facility” — rather than for blanket rules across a county, according to the proposed framework.

For counties where the virus' spread is more dire, the two more-restrictive proposed levels of safer-at-home phase — or, in the extreme case, the stay-at-home phase — would apply, with restrictions tightening the worse the virus' spread is.

For example, a county under the tightest proposed level of safer-at-home — seeing 175 to 350 new cases per 100,000 people within two weeks — would be suggested to limit P-12 schools to remote, or online, classes only.

The middle proposed level, on the other hand, would suggest in-person classes, online or a hybrid of the two. That level would be for counties seeing 75 to 175 new cases per 100,000 people within two weeks.

For context, the 14-day rate per 100,000 for Arapahoe County was 59.7, the rate for Adams County was 97.4 and Douglas County's rate was 58 as of Sept. 10, according to the Tri-County Health Department.

Where a county lands among the three proposed levels would also depend on the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive and whether hospitalizations are stable or declining, along with other standards.

Similar to Colorado's existing process for applying for variances, a county that is eligible and would like to move to a less restrictive level would notify the state public-health department by a letter signed by local public health officials, local elected officials and local hospitals.

Continued reopening, aside from some bars

Some bars would remain closed in even the most relaxed proposed safer-at-home level, opening only under the “protect our neighbors” phase.

Under the state's recent closure of bars, effective July 1, some bars that operate similar to restaurants can continue in-person service as long as patrons remain with their party, spaced 6 feet apart with no mingling, according to a news release from the governor's office. The state has generally treated 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 — as able to stay open like restaurants.

The “protect our neighbors” phase allows for activities at 50% of pre-pandemic capacity with at least 6 feet between non-household members and no more than 500 people in one setting at a time.

The state relaxed rules in June to allow theaters and indoor and outdoor concerts to open again along with other large event venues, also loosening rules for places of worship, gyms, playgrounds and recreation. Those changes came as updates to the safer-at-home order.

If the virus' spread worsens enough, a return to stay-at-home rules is a possibility, state officials have repeatedly acknowledged since the spring.

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