As state public health officials prepare to step back and let local health agencies decide what coronavirus restrictions to enact going forward, it's unclear what the resulting landscape of policies will look like in the Denver metro area — and how broad the differences among them may be.
The latest changes to Colorado's system of restrictions — dubbed “dial 3.0” — took effect on March 24, making it easier for counties to move into level green, the least restrictive of the dial's six levels. Dial 3.0 also removed most restrictions in level green altogether and relaxed limits for certain businesses in other counties.
The state's color-coded 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.
After several months that saw changes to the dial system, that chapter of Colorado's pandemic policy is coming to a close.
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.
State-imposed restrictions may not completely fade: A draft policy framework for dial 3.0 in March mentioned a possible statewide public health order that would continue limits on indoor unseated mass gatherings.
The draft also mentions a “snap back” for counties if local hospital capacity is threatened, suggesting state restrictions could return. The document discussed what a “statewide order post (April) 16” could look like.
Meanwhile, Coloradans saw changes to the statewide mask order in early April. Gov. Jared Polis first issued the mask order in July last year.
Now, the list of settings where masks are required in level green only includes schools, child care centers, health care settings, personal services such as hair and nail salons, and some other locations. Notably, many types of businesses — including grocery and retail stores, and others — are no longer among the settings that require masks in level green.
Amid the expected mid-April changes to restrictions on businesses and other settings, some local public health agencies expressed concern about how effective a return to more local control could be.
“It presents challenges to leave restrictions up to local jurisdictions because of less consistency and messaging that can be confusing to the public,” said Danica Lee, director of public health investigations for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. “However, our main focus is still the safety of our residents. We will keep looking at the data and science when making decisions.”
The Tri-County Health Department — which covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — worried about trends of increased rates of new cases of COVID-19, indicating likely increased virus spread, in other parts of the country. That pattern appears to be "due to more relaxed restrictions and spread of more transmissible variants,” the department said in a statement.
“Should conditions worsen in Colorado, we think that a consistent response across regions such as the metro area would be more effective and developing such would be facilitated by collaboration between local and state agencies,” the statement said.
Other local health agencies were more tight-lipped in comments to Colorado Community Media, leaving open the question of what restrictions may look like after mid-April.
Here's a look at how health agencies described what their policies may be going forward.
The agency that includes a large swath of the north, east and south metro areas had not yet decided what future restrictions will look like, according to its April 1 statement.
“We would not enforce restrictions unless we thought it appropriate to issue a local public health order. We are watching trends in cases, hospitalizations, the spread of variants, and vaccinations and discussing possible approaches with other public health departments across the metro region as well as local elected officials and would make decisions based on those factors,” said the statement from Becky O'Guin, a spokeswoman for Tri-County Health.
Any possible restrictions in Tri-County's area would consider settings most likely to be contributing to virus spread, such as spaces with poor ventilation where mask-wearing and social distancing are difficult to maintain and are frequented by unvaccinated people, the statement said. It's unclear how long any local limits may last in Tri-County's area.
“Were we to decide it appropriate to implement restrictions, we would do so for as short a period of time as possible,” O'Guin said.
What's more, restrictions in Douglas County — whose leadership has been vocal in pushing for state restrictions to end — could look different than those in Adams and Arapahoe.
“We know that Douglas County has a strong preference that restrictions end as soon as possible. We are planning a meeting with county leadership in the near future to discuss mutual perspectives about appropriate steps moving forward,” O'Guin said.
If the governor lets the state mask mandate expire in coming weeks, spotlight shifts to Tri-County's existing mask order, which many localities have opted out of.
To avoid confusion with state policy, Tri-County amended its mask order in July to mostly align with the statewide mask order that took effect July 16. Tri-County's order, like the governor's order, requires people to wear masks in public indoor spaces.
But one difference is that Tri-County announced it would extend its order "for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic," the agency announced in an Oct. 20 news release.
Now, the agency appears likely to take a wait-and-see approach.
“Studies and data have proven that mask-wearing is one of the most cost-effective prevention measures available, and we believe that it makes sense to continue our mandate until we see the impact of the easing of community restrictions and the spread of variants on measures of disease severity,” O'Guin said.
She added: “However, we would likely focus our mandate in the near future, on indoor settings and for a specified timeframe.”
As of October, the following cities, towns and county areas had opted out of Tri-County's order requiring mask-wearing: Bennett, Castle Pines, Castle Rock, Columbine Valley, Deer Trail, Glendale, Parker, Douglas County areas outside of municipalities (unincorporated areas), and unincorporated areas in Arapahoe County east of Watkins Road all the way to the eastern county line, generally east of Aurora.
The City of Brighton had opted out but opted back into the order as of Oct. 21, according to the order's text.
Virus restrictions are almost certain to look different in Douglas County compared to in the rest of Tri-County's jurisdiction.
In early March, Douglas County's elected leaders approved a resolution asking the governor to fully reopen the county.
Specifically, the unanimously approved commissioners' resolution asked the state for a framework outlining how and when the county can fully reopen. The vote came following a rally that gathered a crowd of dozens in Castle Rock in support of removing restrictions.
“The state informs us that they share our goal of opening communities, increasing capacity, and relaxing restrictions as more receive the vaccine and severity metrics such as hospitalizations and deaths are reduced,” an April 1 statement from Douglas County said.
It added: “We are counting on the state to make good on their promises and look forward to knowing more in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we will work with Tri-County Health and continue to support our citizens' ability to make wise choices for themselves and their families.”
One place with a clearer picture of future virus restrictions is Denver, where officials are considering restrictions consistent with what's currently in the dial, with a month-by-month phasing down of restrictions — provided that virus spread remains level, Denver officials said.
“Denver would potentially shift to level blue restrictions in mid-April, level green restrictions in mid-May and no restrictions come mid-June,” said Lee, with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
Among the dial's six levels, blue is the second-least restrictive. Purple, the most restrictive level, is a stay-at-home order.
See a map that shows each county's dial level and what restrictions apply to each level here.
Asked about the possibility that Polis would let the state mask mandate expire, Denver officials signaled some sort of mask requirement would likely remain.
“A face-covering requirement in many indoor settings is a measure that makes sense to keep in place while other restrictions may be reduced,” Lee said.
Other Denver-area counties, such as Jefferson, had less to say about what restrictions will look like.
Jefferson County Public Health “is currently awaiting further guidance from (the state public-health department) on confirmed next steps related to loosening restrictions at the state level,” a statement from spokeswoman Ashley Sever said. “At the same time, we have provided input that mask-wearing indoors and social distancing remain essential at this time to continue to stop the spread of COVID-19 and to avoid any future surges as we race to distribute (the) vaccine.”
The health agency “will consider any local level disease prevention measures as necessary based on what the evidence says is needed in our community,” Sever said.
The response was similar in Weld County, where officials said they “are still in deliberation.”
“There continues to be a number of 'unknowns,' and until there are clear decisions from the (governor's) office, we will continue to reflect on our options,” said Eric Aakko, division director for health education, communication and planning in the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment.
It was also unclear how limits would look in Elbert County, but one of the county's leaders shed light on the general attitude of Elbert officials.
"People have been doing what people will do, that's been our message all along," said Elbert County Commissioner Chris Richardson. He continued: “If you think you're sick, get tested. If you are sick, stay home. Make good choices. We have always believed that our residents should make the best decisions for themselves and look forward to having more local control over our citizens' safety."
Clear Creek County is one rural area where officials appear to be sounding a more cautious tone, though it is still unclear how restrictions may look there.
“This pandemic is not over, despite the politicians' desire to make it so,” Clear Creek County Public Health Director Tim Ryan said at a March 30 COVID-19 update with the county commissioners.
Ryan said a statewide mask mandate is easier for residents and visitors to keep track of, rather than a piecemeal approach.
“I spoke to my colleagues in other counties, and the level of absolute belligerence of people going to resorts is at an all-time high,” Ryan said. “(Those counties) want the ski season to end as quick as possible. They want the snow to melt, because (visitors are) driving up the numbers in those counties.”
“How do we communicate to folks that this isn't over yet, and we're in a moment of danger here?” Commissioner George Marlin said.
Colorado Community Media reporters Ellis Arnold, Elliott Wenzler, Christina Steadman, Liam Adams, Paul Albani-Burgio, Tabatha Stewart, Corinne Westeman and Deb Hurley Brobst contributed to this story.
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