Judgment day for Garfield County regarding state variance, but COVID-19 case trend headed in right direction
It’s been two weeks since Garfield County was notified by state public health officials that an alarming rate of new coronavirus cases locally would need to be reversed, or the county could lose its state variance allowing for broader business openings.
While the needle is moving in the right direction on some fronts, an outbreak reported Friday at two Garfield County churches is not likely to help the county’s case any.
Two weeks was the time frame given for the county to show some improvement on several statistical fronts, including the overall trend in new cases and the positivity rate among people being tested for COVID-19.
Otherwise, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment could seek to modify or remove the county’s variance — a move that could severely impact restaurants, gyms and tourist attractions in the area.
The variance, granted May 23, allowed businesses in Garfield County to open more fully than state public health orders have provided in the effort to control the spread of the potentially deadly virus.
Exactly where the county stands is expected to be the lead topic of discussion when the Board of County Commissioners convene at 8 a.m. Monday to hear the latest public health update.
“Yes, the variance is at risk due to case counts,” Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said in an emailed response to questions on Thursday.
But, it remains to be seen how the state will view the latest statistical data for the county, she said.
As of Friday, the needle was at least moving in the right direction, though the county remains in the state’s highest danger zone for risk of virus spread.
The latest 14-day onset of new COVID-19 cases, from July 18-31, fell to 54, compared to more than 180 cases during the prior two-week period, according to data compiled and reported by the county health department.
Those numbers change daily due to adjustments made for a rolling 14-day period. The county has also been experiencing a lengthy turn-around time for obtaining test results — more than a week in some cases — so that number could go up over the weekend as more results are reported.
The county’s case rate per 100,000 people has also gone down, from more than 110 per 100,000 at one point last week to 89.9 per 100,000 as of Friday.
The state’s thresholds are based on virus spread per 100,000, but because Garfield County’s population is 61,000 that number is also adjusted to a lower benchmark. For the county to return to the medium risk zone, it would need to show fewer than 31 cases over consecutive two-week periods.
Still a major concern is the county’s test positivity rate. As of Friday, the positivity rate was 10.7%, up from 7.9% on Thursday and much higher than the 5.3% positivity rate the county was reporting in mid-July.
To return to the medium-risk categories, Garfield County would need to show fewer than 31 new cases over a two-week period, a case rate of 50 or fewer per 100,000 people, a test positivity rate of less than 10%, and stable or declining hospitalizations.
What that all means for Garfield County businesses and the county’s tourism-based economy headed into the final weeks before Labor Day remains unknown.
In some ways, the county’s variance is actually stricter than the state’s current iteration of the “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors” public health order that’s now in place, Long pointed out.
“The county is only obligated to follow the least restrictive measure,” she said.
The high rate of virus spread is also keeping Garfield County from seeking approval to move into the less-restrictive “Protect Our Neighbors” phase of opening, she said.
The county could be asked to roll back to the more-restrictive provisions under the Safer at Home rules.
Key differences between the county’s May 23 variance and the current state public health orders, according to Long, include:
- Restaurants may be open at 50% capacity under the county variance, including indoor and outdoor dining, with a maximum of 175 people; the state order allows 50% of posted indoor capacity, not to exceed 50 patrons.
- Bars that do not serve food remain closed in Garfield County, but can be open under the state rules at 25% capacity or 50 patrons, whichever comes first.
- Houses of worship are allowed 50% capacity or up to 175 people under the county variance; the state limits places of worship to 50% capacity or between 50 and 100 people, depending on the size of the worship space.
- Fitness Centers/Gyms can be open at 50%/175 people under the county variance, but are limited to 25%/50 people under the state rules.
- Outdoor recreation facilities can be open at 50%/50 people max under the county variance, but are limited to no more than 25 people under the state rules.
- Outfitters, such as backcountry and rafting guides, can operate at 50% capacity with up to two households in a group under the county variance, but are limited to household groups of no more than 10 people under the state rules.
- Group sizes for indoor special events can include 25 people under the county variance, but would be limited to 10 under the state rules.
A big question if the county is asked to roll back to the Safer at Home provisions revolves around Glenwood Springs’ tourism attractions.
Currently, large attractions such as the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, the Iron Mountain Hot Springs and the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park are allowed to operate at 30% capacity, but with strict social distancing measures and other public health protocols in place.
“The Hot Springs Pool is basically open under our variance, as the county submitted a request for clarification from the state and has not received a reply,” Long explained.
The county had sought further guidance and clarification and included the pool’s social distancing plan in a follow-up variance request that was not granted.
“When the original public health order for safer at home and the great outdoors was released, we interpreted that to say they could open,” Long said.
The state treats hot springs as outdoor pools, which are currently limited to no more than 50 people, or 50% capacity, whichever comes first.
“We define (hot springs) as large tourist attractions, as stated in our letter to the state, and they are operating under those guidelines,” Long said.
In any case, with the exception of two employees at the Iron Mountain Hot Springs who tested positive, forcing a temporary closure of the cafe, it has not been tourist-oriented businesses where cases are showing up, Long added.
Rather, part of the increase has been attributed to the commuter workforce that lives in Garfield County and works primarily up-valley restaurant, hotel, construction and landscaping/property maintenance jobs.
Many of those workers are Hispanic, a statistic that shows up in the county’s numbers. As of Friday, nearly 68% of the county’s total COVID-19 cases involved Hispanic/Latino residents. That percentage has risen steadily from less than 50% in early June, just before many types of businesses began to reopen.
A Washington Post story Friday detailed a trend where Hispanics are making up a growing percentage of overall deaths from COVID-19. The story also highlighted the disease’s outsized impacts on Native Americans.
Tying commuting cases to specific places of employment is difficult, though, Long said.
“Even with active contact tracing, we cannot be positive where people contract COVID-19, unless there is an obvious tie in the same family or some other clear exposure,” Long said.
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