Garfield County seeks waiver from state health orders to restart some businesses at 30-50% capacity
Decision not expected for at least 5 to 8 days
Restaurants, fitness gyms and places of worship would be able to reopen at 50% capacity, and tourist attractions at 30%, under a Garfield County variance request forwarded to state public health officials on Friday.
In a special meeting Friday afternoon, county commissioners unanimously approved the request, as county officials and business owners hope to reboot the economy after more than two months of restrictions ordered by Gov. Jared Polis, aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado.
While spread of the coronavirus might still be a concern along the Front Range and in other parts of the state, Garfield County is not experiencing a rapid increase in the number of new confirmed cases, the county states in the 30-page document sent to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Data from local public health officials shows Garfield County’s case numbers peaked in mid-March, and that the rate of new confirmed cases has slowed substantially in recent weeks, according to the variance request.
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“The county has seen 14 hospitalizations of Garfield County residents and has had two deaths,” an accompanying cover letter to CDPHE Executive Director Jill Ryan points out.
A third death occurred in Garfield County, but did not involve a county resident, Yvonne Long, Public Health director for the county, clarified during the Friday meeting.
“Garfield County has been following the Governor’s Orders throughout the COVID-19 Stay at Home and Safer at Home stages, and is requesting the loosening of restrictions that make sense for our local conditions,” the letter goes on to say. “This action will not burden our public health services inside or outside of Garfield County.”
The variance request required both hospitals in the county, Valley View in Glenwood Springs and Grand River in Rifle, to sign off on the plan. Both have done that, Long said.
“Our Public Health Department will continue to regulate social behaviors, events, types of businesses that may reopen, and travel around the county, to control disease transmission,” the cover letter concludes.
With several other county variances currently being reviewed by the state health department, it could take up to eight days for Garfield County to get an answer, Long said.
But county commissioners, who sent two letters this week directly to Gov. Jared Polis seeking an executive order for immediate relief, are hoping it can be fast-tracked.
“The business community is dying on the vine, and we’re trying to save them,” Commission Chairman John Martin said.
Martin said the variance request has been in the works for several weeks, but because the county was still showing a doubling of COVID-19 cases every two weeks in early and mid-April, it took until now to be able to present a reasonable request.
If approved, the variance would allow Garfield County to begin reopening businesses that are currently not allowed to have customers on premises, including restaurants at 50% capacity, ahead of May 27 when Polis’s current executive order expires.
This week, the county has been dealing with one Rifle restaurant that decided to go rogue and begin serving customers at 30% of capacity, against public health orders.
Shooters Grill owner Lauren Boebert was handed a temporary restraining order on Wednesday, but has continued to openly defy the orders. She is due in Garfield County Court in Glenwood Springs at 9 a.m. Monday for a preliminary injunction hearing.
Neighboring Mesa County was granted a variance by the state that allowed restaurants there to open at 30%. Given Garfield County’s positive data since the beginning of May, the decision was made to seek permission to open at 50% capacity for restaurants, as well as gyms and churches.
Businesses will still have to submit a plan of operation to Garfield County Public Health that states how they plan to maintain social distancing and other health precautions, Long said.
“The request is for 50% of seating capacity, but with appropriate social distancing,” she said.
“The social distancing takes priority over the capacity,” Long said, meaning a smaller business location coudl be even further limited on their capacity if they cannot meet the health protocol of 6-feet of separation.
Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said it’s important to include tourism-related businesses, which would be allowed to open at 30% capacity under the variance request.
“We can’t just get our restaurants open,” he said. “We need to have restaurants, lodging and also our tourist attractions open to be able to get the economy kicked back up for the summer.”
Glenwood Springs’ major tourist attractions, including the Hot Springs Resort, Iron Mountain Hot Springs, Glenwood Caverns and Adventure Park and the various river outfitters have been busy putting together their formal reopening plans to present to public health officials. If the county variance is granted, they could conceivably begin reopening by Memorial Day weekend May 22-25.
Jankovsky also noted that vulnerable populations, including senior citizens and people with existing health conditions, are still advised to stay at home except for essential needs under the governor’s order. That doesn’t change with the variance, he said.
“There are trigger points built into this, and we could go backwards,” Jankovsky said. “That’s why we must continue to use social distancing, wear masks, wash our hands … all those things to make sure to keep our vulnerable population safe.”
Added Commissioner Mike Samson, “This was not an easy task, and I know it took a lot of people to pull this together. Hopefully, this will alleviate some of the problems and get our county opened back up.”
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