Confusion abounds as metro-area counties' COVID-19 restrictions loosened

State moving Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson and others to level orange


Public health restrictions in Denver metro counties will loosen Jan. 4, even though many don't qualify for a lower level of restrictions.

Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson counties, which are all in level red on the state's COVID-19 dial, will move to level orange. County health departments finalized the decision Thursday after an unexpected announcement from Gov. Jared Polis late Wednesday.

“Throughout this pandemic, we have had to walk a difficult line between the public health crisis and the economic crisis,” Polis said in a tweet explaining the rationale for his decision. Citing a decline in statewide hospital ICU bed space, he said level red counties are ready to take it down a notch.

However, according to metrics established by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Denver metro counties don't qualify for level orange. The three metrics are 14-day test positivity rate, hospitalization rate and 14-day new case incidence rate. Denver metro counties are in the clear with the first two, but their 14-day incidence rates are still level red, according to CDPHE data.

“This drastic change to level orange, while it's very helpful for businesses and very helpful for our economy, we're hopeful that we're not moving too quickly and that we don't start to see another surge,” Jennifer Ludwig, deputy director of Tri-County Health Department, said in a Dec. 31 press conference.

At level orange, restaurants can serve guests indoors at 25% of capacity not to exceed 50 people and gyms can operate at 25% capacity, as can noncritical office-based businesses. Groups of 10 from no more than two households can gather indoors. Organized recreational youth or adult sporting leagues cannot hold indoor events.

State health officials recently approved Arapahoe and Douglas counties for the Five Star Recovery Partner Program, which loosens restrictions for eligible businesses. It was originally believed that a Five-Star-certified business can operate a dial level lower than its county. If Douglas and Arapahoe stayed at level red, Five-Star-certified businesses could have operated at level orange restrictions on Monday, Jan. 4.

However, the regionwide move to level orange doesn't mean Five-Star-certified businesses can yet operate at level yellow restrictions, Ludwig explained. A county must meet all the metrics, which those in the metro area have not. The counties' 14-day incidence rates need to move from red to orange first.

Confusion around the Five-Star program was a major issue Thursday for municipalities, which fielded calls all day, Ludwig said. City representatives didn't have answers, though.

“Today, we were not prepared for the announcement to be moving to level orange,” Ludwig said. The decision was “an absolute directive from the governor,” she added.

Meanwhile, a public health order for Adams County, which included a curfew, was in place until Jan. 7. That will expire early when the counties move to level orange on Monday.


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