Elbert County, state move forward on variance

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After Elbert County commissioners acted unilaterally to allow school graduations to move forward and houses of worship to resume services without an attendance cap, state officials responded over Memorial Day weekend, requesting more information from the county regarding a potential variance from state COVID-19 restrictions.

In doing so, the state made no mention of the school ceremonies or churches in its letter.

And six days later, on May 29, the state approved the county’s request to let gyms open, allow more people at gatherings, and loosen dine-in services for small restaurants.

The Board of County Commissioners first submitted a request for a partial variance from state rules to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on May 6, asking for more local control as county businesses began to reopen under Gov. Jared Polis’ “Safer at Home” order.

The CDPHE responded with a request for a letter backing the request from a local hospital, which the BOCC returned May 12.

With no response in the form of a denial or approval from the CDPHE, the BOCC took matters into its own hands May 20, when the three commissioners, acting in their role as the Elbert County Board of Health, approved high school graduation ceremonies and in-person services at houses of worship, with recommendations of social distancing guidelines and increased sanitation measures.

The CDPHE responded to the BOCC’s weeks-old partial variance request after 8 p.m. on May 23 — the Saturday night of the Memorial Day weekend — stating “In Public Health Order 20-28, counties that choose to submit a variance application are directed to submit a (disease) suppression plan for approval or denial by CDPHE.”

The BOCC’s initial request included eight key elements of suppression, along with 13 pages of how they would be addressed as retail businesses, field services, personal services, office-based businesses and limited healthcare settings began opening. According to CDPHE, the guidelines set forth in the BOCC variance request were not specific enough to grant approval.

“We thought we had submitted a good request, and patterned it off of other counties that had already successfully received waivers,” said Commissioner Chris Richardson. “We’re happy that we’re getting some guidance and the conversation is open with the CDPHE, and although their recent letter was vague in regards to areas of concern, we drafted an amendment and sent that back to them May 26.”

The revision included specific businesses/restrictions for which the county was seeking a variance and which were largely granted on May 29, including size of gatherings, operation of gyms, and the dining capacity of restaurants. The BOCC is requesting gathering sizes be increased from 10 to 25 in the county, or up to 50 in regions of the county with no recorded COVID-19 cases, such as traditional outdoor agricultural events. Allowing guided exercise classes of up to 10 persons and allowing the Elbert County Health Department to determine the dine-in restrictions were also on the list of requests.

According to the Electronic Disease Reporting System (CEDRS), Elbert County, at the time of filing for the variance, had a total of 52 cases of COVID-19, with two deaths. There have been no cases in the county jail or two group/resident nursing homes in the county.

Richardson said he hoped the round of revisions submitted May 26 would satisfy the CDPHE’s guidelines, and that the BOCC can be the leaders their community members need during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have an obligation to our citizens, and we want to make sure we can give them guidance and resources that help keep them safe,” he said.

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