Amid the worst era of the COVID-19 pandemic thus far for Colorado, state lawmakers will return to the Capitol for a special session on coronavirus relief, Gov. Jared Polis confirmed Nov. 17.
Legislators “will be putting themselves at some risk to alleviate the needs of others” by meeting in person during this time, the governor said during a news briefing. Polis did not give a date for when the special session would start but said that more details would be available later in the week.
On the agenda: relief for individuals and small businesses hurt by the economic effects of the pandemic.
“Our state’s recovery could hinge on the next few months,” said Rep. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, who was recently elected to the position of House speaker by fellow Democrats in the majority. January, when the regular session is scheduled to start, would be “too late” to provide help to those who need it, he said.
Polis has proposed a mid-year adjustment to the budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year (which runs through July 2021) that includes a $1.3 billion economic stimulus package, including items such as broadband investments, emergency housing and cash assistance, grants for child care assistance, and wildfire mitigation and recovery. That stimulus package will require approval from the Joint Budget Committee, and a recent legislative staff analysis found it would require drawing from the general fund reserve.
Meanwhile, the public health crisis is worsening.
As of Nov. 16, 1,294 people were hospitalized in Colorado with confirmed COVID-19, along with 130 people with suspected cases. Statewide, 28% of hospitals reporting data to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment expect staff shortages within the next week, and 9% expect intensive care bed shortages.
Though many counties have recently implemented mitigation measures such as curfews and limits on personal gatherings, those measures have so far failed limit the trajectory of the virus’ spread.
Several counties will move to the red level of the dial system they use to determine COVID-19 restrictions, Polis also announced at the Nov. 17 briefing. That means counties with the worst COVID-19 metrics will be forced to close restaurants for indoor dining and restrict gyms further than the 25% capacity mandated under the orange level.
“We clearly need a more drastic shift in behavior to further slow the transmission of the virus,” Polis said.
However, the red level of the dial will no longer be classified as “Stay at Home.”
Effective Nov. 20, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will begin calling the red level “severe risk” and will add a purple level to the right of the red level. The red level formerly constituted the level with the worst COVID-19 metrics and the most stringent public health restrictions. Now, the purple level will be added for those counties with even worse metrics — and more restrictions — than the red level.
Polis did not specify which counties would be the first to move from orange to red, and did not say that any were expected to move to purple anytime soon. Since Denver, Adams and Logan counties were the first to move from blue to orange — and have not shown significant improvements in their COVID-19 metrics — it’s likely that those three counties will be among the first that are ordered to implement more public health restrictions.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who also spoke at the briefing, called on residents to “please work from home if you have the ability.” The city and county has implemented a 10 p.m. curfew and limited personal gatherings to five people.
“This is a balancing act to maintain our focus on public health protections against COVID without further compounding the additional public health impacts of the economic stress on our families and local businesses,” Hancock said.
Counties moving from orange to red will be allowed to keep restaurants open for takeout, delivery and outdoor dining, Polis said. CDPHE’s current dial system guidance for counties in the red level aligns with those stipulations, and forbids indoor dining at restaurants.
— Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (@CDPHE) November 17, 2020
However, Polis said, gyms will be allowed to remain open at 10% capacity, a change from CDPHE’s current guidelines for counties in the red level. He added that the dial system will be revised to recommend in-person learning for preschool through fifth-grade students in the red level, a change from the current guidelines, which recommend remote learning for counties in the red zone.
People at higher risk of severe symptoms from COVID-19 — including those older than 65 and people with obesity, diabetes, chronic lung, heart or kidney disease, cancer, and immunocompromised status — are recommended to stay at home.
Logan County in northeast Colorado was the first to be moved into the orange level, on Oct. 19, followed by Denver and Adams counties on Oct. 28.
On Nov. 6, CDPHE also moved Broomfield, Boulder and Summit counties from the blue level to the orange level. They were joined by Mesa County on Nov. 7.
Polis also said that everyday Coloradans who are not involved in policymaking shouldn’t be overly concerned with the mechanics of the dial. “Let’s just focus on what we need to do to get through this,” he said.