El Paso County limits indoor capacity following COVID-19 talks with state officials

Houses of worship can maintain 175-person capacity

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers
Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers speaks at a news conference July 31. (City of Colorado Springs Facebook)

Due to high coronavirus transmission and a test positivity rate close to 8%, El Paso County announced it will tighten restrictions on indoor capacity and event size.

The county submitted a mitigation plan dated July 13 that explained to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment how it would lower the test positivity rate, case count and hospitalizations in order to retain its variance from the state’s more restrictive safer-at-home guidelines. The plan included hiring additional contact tracers and case investigators, epidemiologists, and disease intervention specialists, plus increasing the county’s public outreach.

After two weeks, the county hadn’t shown significant improvements — though the rate of increase in new cases appeared to be leveling off slightly.

Over the two weeks ending July 30, the the county added more than 150 new cases per 100,000 residents, according to El Paso County Public Health. However, CDPHE declined to roll back its variance right away, the Colorado Springs Gazette reported July 29.

That changed July 31, as El Paso County Public Health issued a statement saying that following discussions among CDPHE, the city of Colorado Springs and local business leaders, it would lower the indoor capacity for most events and businesses from 175 people, the maximum allowed under the county’s current variance, to 100 people. The state’s limit under safer-at-home is 50 people or 50% of capacity. The county is allowed to maintain the 175-person limit for places of worship, according to the statement.

“We think these are small and reasonable steps that we can avoid more drastic steps,” Mayor John Suthers of Colorado Springs, the seat of El Paso County, said at a news conference July 31. “The data is telling us that we need to do a little bit more. We need everyone’s cooperation.”

He added that this move would be temporary, and the county hopes to restore the original limits once the county’s numbers are again “trending in the right direction.” That could happen within the next two weeks, Mark Waller, chair of the Board of County Commissioners, said later.

Dr. Robin Johnson, the medical director of El Paso County Public Health, said the decision to exclude houses of worship was made based on the county’s data showing where outbreaks were occurring.

Colorado Springs and El Paso County officials also agreed to “explore options for a free drive-through community-based testing site” and “have made a commitment to advocate for increased teleworking” in collaboration with business leaders, according to the statement.

Variances in other counties in question

El Paso County, the first to submit a mitigation plan because of increasing COVID-19 spread, provides a first look at what could happen to other counties with variances if they aren’t able to meet CDPHE’s benchmarks.

Seven additional counties — Eagle, Garfield, Arapahoe, Prowers, Denver, Broomfield and Larimer — submitted mitigation plans July 20, and Adams and Douglas counties followed suit shortly afterward. All of those counties have just days to show they can lower virus transmission. Otherwise some would risk similar rollbacks of their own variances.

Douglas County submitted a mitigation plan July 21 in which it addressed specific steps it would take to improve testing capacity, contact tracing and public outreach. However, it began the letter by saying the county “respectfully requests clarification” about why the mitigation plan was being called for.

The county’s current variance includes indoor limits of 175 people for events, pools, theaters and libraries, up to 50% of normal capacity.

“According to Douglas County’s most recent granted variance dated June 26, 2020, the standard for review of all Douglas County variances was to be that the County would not exceed a percent positivity of 5%,” the letter stated. “In the event the County exceeded that threshold, the County was to notify CDPHE and then implement a mitigation plan for 2 weeks to try and restore virus transmission levels to the baseline under which the variance was approved. Douglas County has not exceeded the percent positivity rate of 5% and currently resides at 4.6%.”

A county spokesperson said July 30 that Douglas County had not received clarification on the issue from CDPHE. The variance itself does not include specific language about metrics to meet other than the test positivity rate, though it does include the sentence: “CDPHE reserves the right to modify or rescind this variance approval as circumstances warrant.”

On its website, CDPHE includes standards for variances approved under conditions of high virus spread, medium spread and low spread. Low spread is defined as 25 cases per 100,000 people or fewer, but for counties with “high testing rates,” a test positivity rate below 5% is acceptable in place of a case count below 25 per 100,000 people. Counties with low spread also must show stable or declining hospitalizations.

Like Douglas County’s, El Paso County’s variance also says it must maintain a positivity rate below 5%. Both variances were approved under “low spread.”

Douglas County has seen between 50 and 100 new cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks, according to CDPHE, giving it a “moderately high” incidence rate. El Paso County’s incidence rate is “high” — above 100 per 100,000 people.