COVID-19 dial framework: Future restrictions are anyone’s guess

Indoor dining opened everywhere in Colorado on Jan. 4

Colorado Springs business
A business in downtown Colorado Springs posted signs with COVID-19 warnings and capacity limits, pictured Nov. 14, 2020. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Following Gov. Jared Polis’ Dec. 30 announcement on social media that he had asked the state health department to loosen COVID-19 restrictions for 33 counties, those formerly red-level areas of Colorado moved to orange-level restrictions within the state’s dial system on Jan. 4. This allowed restaurants within those counties to reopen indoor dining at 25% of pre-COVID capacity.

The move became the latest major rollback to the dial framework, which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment first introduced in September. Previously, counties were supposed to meet certain COVID-19 metrics — two-week incidence rate, test positivity rate and stable or declining hospitalizations — before moving levels based on their individual COVID-19 situation. But Polis suggested he wanted all of the red-level counties, even those with high numbers of cases, to move to orange at once to avoid confusion.

COVID-19 dial
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment revised its dial system Nov. 20 to add a purple level to the right of the red level, raising the bar for a stay-at-home order. (CDPHE)

Still, many questions remain.

One that’s probably top of mind for local officials and business owners around the state: What would it take for those newly orange counties — now allowed to open indoor dining and event venues — to slip back into red territory? A move from orange back to red would have major consequences for cities and counties. Under red-level restrictions, indoor dining and events are banned, and gyms, which can operate at 25% of their pre-COVID capacity under the orange level, must limit capacity to 10%.

As of yet, it’s unclear what the process of moving counties between dial levels might look like in the future.

Some counties have a ways to go before reaching orange-level metrics

To remain in the orange level, counties are supposed to maintain an incidence rate between 175 and 350 new cases per 100,000 people reported over the prior two weeks. And to ensure that testing resources are sufficient, no more than 15% of COVID-19 tests can come back positive over the same two-week period.

COVID-19 dial metrics
This table shows the COVID-19 thresholds that counties in each level are supposed to meet. However, Polis directed the state to move many counties to the orange level on Jan. 4 that had metrics aligned with the red level. (Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment)

It’s unlikely that CDPHE will move any newly orange counties to a more restrictive level within the next week, even though many have far more cases than what the dial system associates with the orange level. That’s because exceeding the orange metrics doesn’t automatically trigger a level change — rather, it triggers a “consultation process” between state and local health departments that could result in intermediary local public health orders, such as curfews or limits on gathering sizes. Also, Polis’ administration has been slow to move counties to more restrictive levels in the past.

THE MORNING NEWSLETTER
Subscribe now.

But a number of counties have high enough incidence rates to put them at particular risk of moving back to red in the coming weeks, shuttering indoor dining and events, if their respective COVID-19 situations don’t continue to improve — and if the administration proves willing to enforce the dial framework. Among them are:

• On the Western Slope: Garfield County has an incidence rate of 807 new cases per 100,000 people over the last two weeks, more than twice the acceptable limit for the orange level. The county’s positivity rate of 9.4% is lower than the orange level requires. Delta County not only has a staggering two-week incidence of 1,052 cases per 100,000 people, but also has a relatively high positivity rate of 13%. Similarly, Montrose County — just south of Delta County — has a two-week incidence rate of 806 cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 12.8%.

• Mountain hotspot: Pitkin County has one of the highest incidence rates in the state, with 1,690 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people reported over the last two weeks. The county’s 9.8% test positivity rate is better than the orange level requires.

• In rural southeast Colorado: Otero County reported a two-week incidence rate of 727 cases per 100,000 people and an 8.2% test positivity rate. Neighboring Bent County‘s two-week incidence of 3,501 new cases per 100,000 people is the highest in the state, and its positivity rate of 14% doesn’t bode well for local contact tracing capabilities.

Those stats are updated each afternoon on a webpage run by CDPHE.

Looser restrictions yet to kick in for 5 Star businesses

Another big question following the Jan. 4 change: What does the accelerated move from red to orange mean for the businesses certified by counties through 5 Star programs?

Such programs, piloted by Mesa County and recently approved by the state in eight others (Jefferson, Elbert, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Douglas, Larimer, La Plata and Summit), allow certified businesses that pass a special public health inspection to adhere to capacity restrictions one level below what their county’s dial level would normally require. Counties interested in implementing such a program must apply through CDPHE before certifying any businesses.

The programs particularly benefit restaurants when a county is under the red level of the dial. Restaurants normally can’t open to indoor dining while in red, but getting a 5 Star certification allows them the opportunity to operate under orange-level restrictions, which means they can open the dining room to 25% of normal capacity.

After Polis directed CDPHE to move some counties to orange even though they wouldn’t have qualified under the dial system, some restaurant owners wondered whether they could begin operating at 50% capacity — the restrictions under the yellow level.

“One of the most common questions we are hearing is whether 5 Star-certified restaurants located in counties that were in RED, and will now be moved to ORANGE while their metrics are still technically in RED, can open in YELLOW,” the Colorado Restaurant Association said in a Jan. 5 statement on its website.

“According to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), they cannot,” the statement continued.

626 on Rood
626 on Rood, a fine-dining restaurant and wine bar in Grand Junction, received a 5-Star certification through Mesa County’s Variance Protection Program. (Courtesy of Wilkinson LLC)

CDPHE provided some information about this in a Jan. 5 statement. According to its new policy, counties with 5 Star programs that were approved by the state this winter must meet the metrics for the orange level for one week before allowing certified businesses to operate under yellow-level restrictions.

“We are currently working to find out which counties operating 5 Star programs currently or will soon qualify and will let you know as soon as we find out,” the Restaurant Association’s separate statement said.

As of Jan. 5, the orange-level counties with the best COVID-19 dial metrics included:

• On the Eastern Plains: Rural Washington County, with a two-week incidence rate of 210 cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 4.5%, meets the metrics for the orange level. Its southern neighbor, Lincoln County, boasts a two-week incidence rate of 246 cases per 100,000 and a positivity rate of 5.1%.

• Mountain bright spots: Gilpin County has an incidence rate of 209 new cases per 100,000 people reported over the past two weeks. The county’s test positivity rate stands at 5.6%. Farther south, Park County is faring slightly worse but still falls comfortably within the orange guidelines, with a two-week incidence rate of 275 cases per 100,000 people, and a test positivity rate of 9%.

• On the Western Slope: Rio Blanco‘s two-week incidence rate of 269 cases per 100,000 people and test positivity rate of 3.9% align with the orange level. Farther south, San Miguel County has a similar two-week incidence rate of 293 cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 4.1%.

• In southern Colorado: Custer County, currently in orange, reported fewer than eight cases over the past two weeks. The county also boasts a test positivity rate of 3.3%. Its neighbor to the south, Huerfano County, has a two-week incidence rate of 204 cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate of 1.4%.

Most Denver metro counties, with the exception of Broomfield, have case incidence rates that align with the red level. They’ll need to improve their COVID-19 metrics in order to guarantee that the state won’t move them on the dial.

HELP US GROW
Make a tax-deductible donation.