Counties with variances from COVID-19 guidelines could lose privileges

Denver, El Paso, Arapahoe among those who submitted mitigation plans

Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, during a news briefing on July 21, 2020. (Governor Jared Polis Facebook)

Colorado counties with increasing COVID-19 case numbers that have been granted exceptions from state-level restrictions were told July 19 to submit a mitigation plan to reverse the trend within two weeks — or revert back to Colorado’s “safer at home” guidelines.

“The spread of the disease is increasing in Colorado, and the rate of increase is speeding up,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s executive director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, said during a news briefing July 21.

To be eligible for variances, counties must show low COVID-19 case numbers, stable or declining hospitalizations, and that the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive is under a certain threshold. Based on the guidelines approved for a particular variance, certain metrics could trigger a warning, of sorts, from CDPHE.

The counties that were notified they fell into this “danger zone” included Prowers, Mineral, Grand, El Paso, Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield, Douglas, Denver, Custer, Chaffee, Broomfield, Arapahoe, Adams and Larimer.

Eight counties — Lake, Sedgwick, Chaffee, Prowers, Mineral, Grand, Pitkin and Garfield — no longer have their own variances in place, and are adhering to the state’s safer-at-home guidelines.

Of the counties that still have variances but fall in the danger zone, El Paso, Eagle, Arapahoe, Denver, Broomfield and Larimer counties submitted mitigation plans to CDPHE, and Adams and Douglas plan to submit them this week, a State Emergency Operations Center spokesperson said July 22.

Fewer restrictions with variances

As of July 22, El Paso County — which has seen far more than 100 cases per 100,000 residents in the last two weeks — still had variances in place. Those include allowing up to 175 people (no more than 50% capacity) in a restaurant’s indoor dining area. The safer-at-home guidelines allow no more than 50 people or 50% capacity. A variance also lets the county allow up to 175 people at indoor events, while the state’s limit is 100 people.

For the week ending July 21, an average of 77 new cases were reported each day, according to El Paso County Public Health. The week ending July 14 saw a daily average of 70 new cases.

The county has until July 28 to meet criteria (since its mitigation plan was submitted July 14), or its variances could be made closer to state-level restrictions. For example, a test positivity rate between 5% and 10% could trigger a 100-person limit for indoor events.

Eagle County, which is still under a variance, responded to its own uptick by submitting a mitigation plan and announcing new restrictions July 20 aimed at mitigating the virus’ spread. Those included limiting private gatherings to 10 people or less, indoor public gatherings to 100 or less, and outdoor public events to 175 or less.

The county saw an average of 3.8 cases reported daily for the week ending July 18, and an average of 8.8 cases for the week ending July 11. (Eagle County reports cases by onset date, while El Paso County sorts them by reported date. Often a case won’t be reported until days after the onset date, when a test comes back positive.)

“Our persistence and our responsibility will be the key to our success in the next few weeks,” Gov. Jared Polis said at the briefing July 21.