Several Colorado counties at risk of rollback on reopening as COVID-19 flares

15 counties saw worsening virus trend, endangering variances from state’s rules

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About one-fourth of Colorado’s counties stand to lose progress on reopening after the coronavirus’ spread appeared to worsen in their populations, putting at risk the exceptions Colorado granted them from the state’s restrictions on activities and businesses, the state’s public-health department announced.

“Our early-warning system has begun to blink red,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, at a Tuesday news conference alongside Gov. Jared Polis.

Ryan spoke of increasing levels of COVID-19 transmission in counties that have been granted exceptions, or “variances,” from the safer-at-home order, Colorado’s current set of social distancing restrictions that came after the state’s stay-at-home order. A variance can expand allowed crowd sizes at gyms, restaurants or houses of worship, or give a county the green light for larger gatherings, for example.

Roughly 50 Colorado counties have been granted variances, according to the state’s COVID-19 information website.

But when the coronavirus’ spread in a county shifts from low or medium to high — based on benchmarks the state outlines — the county must submit a plan to bring transmission levels back down, or it risks returning to the rules under Colorado’s safer-at-home order. When a county experiences a worsening trend, the state public-health department monitors the county’s case counts for two weeks and may alter or remove the variance if deemed necessary.

In the week of July 13, 15 counties were notified that the virus’ trend has become intense enough that their variances must be reconsidered, Hunsaker Ryan said.

Those are Arapahoe, Adams, Broomfield, Chaffee, Custer, Denver, Douglas, Eagle, El Paso, Garfield, Grand, Larimer, Mineral, Pitkin and Prowers counties, according to Ryan.

Instead of submitting a mitigation plan, counties also can choose to return to the safer-at-home order with no variances. Eight of those counties decided to do so, and Ryan did not have the list on hand but said they were mainly the smaller counties.

Read about the standards counties must meet to keep a variance here.

‘Back to basics’

The state’s status check on variances comes less than a week after Colorado issued a statewide order requiring people to wear masks in public indoor spaces and began a two-week pause on accepting any new variance applications.

The slowdown of Colorado’s reopening comes as state researchers have projected a steep upward curve in COVID-19 hospitalizations that could exceed Colorado’s capacity of intensive-care beds in September, with a peak in intensive-care unit need occurring sometime in October, according to researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health.

“We are very worried that without these corrections Coloradans are taking and these increased efforts of social distancing that we would risk being a national hotspot,” Polis said at the July 21 news conference. As of July 20, the state has seen 1,643 deaths due to COVID-19, according to the state’s website.

Coloradans in the 20-29 age group appear to be driving coronavirus cases in the state, putting at risk their parents, grandparents and others, Polis said.

Colorado's uptick may be attributable to bars and nightclubs and potentially to public protests, Polis has said.

Large social gatherings have contributed to that trend, added Polis, discouraging house parties.

“Have four people over — just have four of your besties over,” said Polis, who warns that a large party could spread the virus to dozens and land one or two of them in the hospital.

“No one wants to be mature beyond their age, but that’s what the times call for,” Polis added.

Polis’ presentation at the news conference urged people to go “back to basics” on social distancing, meaning people should take the following steps:

• Work from home if possible.

• When Coloradans camp, going with their household or with another household, not a broader group.

• When having friends over, stay outside.

• Limit groups to fewer than 10 people. Under the safer-at-home order, gatherings of more than 10 people in public and private spaces in general are still prohibited, except for in certain settings such as day camps, recreational sports leagues or events in public.

• Taking fewer trips to grocery store or ordering groceries online, especially for Coloradans at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.

The safer-at-home order went into effect April 27 and was updated in May and June as the state chose to reopen more businesses and activities.

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