Some Denver metro counties qualify for Colorado's new, eased COVID rules

For some counties, personal gatherings allowed up to 25, event crowd cap loosens


Colorado released another round of new social-distancing rules, updating the state’s current “safer-at-home” policy to raise the cap on personal gatherings and event crowds for counties that qualify based on local severity of the coronavirus’s spread.

Arapahoe, Douglas and Elbert are among counties eligible for the new least-restrictive level of Colorado’s safer-at-home rules as of Sept. 16.

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

The state’s new framework, referred to as a “dial,” indicates when counties should operate under different shades of Colorado’s “safer at home” phase as well as when they should follow stay-at-home rules or the state’s third and loosest phase, called “protect our neighbors,” which allows for virtually all activities at 50% of pre-pandemic capacity with up to 500 people in one setting.

That third phase, reserved for counties with notably low coronavirus spread, is likely months away for metro Denver localities.

“We hope the dial can provide communities with clarity and predictability,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a Sept. 15 news release. “Recognizing that Colorado is a diverse and vast state, the dial is based on local conditions. Local governments can always choose more protective (strict) standards than the dial requires.”

The new rules come amid a “slight upward trend” in Colorado’s rate of new COVID-19 cases after the virus’s spread had been reduced for much of July and August, according to a Sept. 16 state news release.

Another gradual move to reopen

The state public-health department’s new proposed framework breaks the safer-at-home phase itself into three levels that counties are placed under based on local COVID-19 spread, according to the final version of the rules, which went into effect Sept. 15.

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

For the past few months, counties have been able to apply for exemptions — or “variances” — from certain parts of the state’s safer-at-home rules, allowing for larger crowds at some types of businesses.

The new framework does 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.

Counties don’t lose the variances they already were granted, though. All variance allowances remained intact when the new framework launched — either because the variance standards are still possible by default under the new framework or because variances that do not fit into the new framework are still recognized, according to the state’s summary.

“This way, we transition to the new framework without any changes,” and counties’ future changes occur according to that framework, the summary says.

What changes mean for businesses, gatherings

Previously, the highest exemption a county could achieve under the variance process included a 175-person cap for indoor events and 250-person cap for outdoor events, according to the state’s summary.

Those are the same capacities allowed in the least-restrictive new safer-at-home level, and it’s easier to qualify for that level than to meet the benchmarks set in the original variance process. In other words, the state has loosened the requirements for allowing larger crowds.

Although the new framework eliminates the possibility of new blanket, countywide exemptions, the state public-health department will still consider applications for “site-specific” variances for unique facilities, such as zoos, theaters or other large venues or events, according to the summary.

To fall into the highest exemption under the state’s previous rules, a county had to have a two-week rate of below 25 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — a notably low rate for highly populated areas. In the new framework, to fall into that same level — which is the least-restrictive new safer-at-home level — a county has to have a two-week rate of up to 75 new cases per 100,000 people.

Among other items, that new level allows 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, 50% capacity or up to 175 people at indoor events and 50% capacity or up to 250 people at 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.

• Also of note: The new level allows personal gatherings of up to 25 people, up from the limit of 10 the state has maintained since spring after the stay-at-home order was lifted.

For counties where the virus’s 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 — apply, with restrictions tightening the worse the virus’s spread is.

For example, a county under the tightest new level of safer-at-home — seeing between 175 and 350 new cases per 100,000 people within two weeks — would fall under guidance for P-12 schools as follows: “Remote (online) or hybrid suggested, limited in-person as appropriate.”

The middle new level, on the other hand — for counties seeing between 75 and 175 new cases per 100,000 people within two weeks —gives guidance as follows: “In-person, hybrid, or remote as appropriate.”

For context, the 14-day rate per 100,000 for Arapahoe County was 76.2, the rate for Adams County was 107.1 and Douglas County’s rate was 65.3 as of Sept. 17, according to the Tri-County Health Department.

Where a county lands among the three proposed safer-at-home levels also depends on the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive and whether hospitalizations are stable or declining.

Similar to Colorado’s previous process for applying for variances, a county that is eligible for and would like to move to a less-restrictive level would notify the state public-health department. A county can submit a letter signed by the local public health agency, local hospitals, and a majority of county commissioners or other county-level governing body.


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