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Colorado, like many states, is beginning to bow to economic pressures resulting from the coronavirus known as COVID-19. Governor Jared Polis’s announced that beginning April 27, Colorado will move into what is being called “Safer-at-Home” orders. In an early preview, Chaffee County has begun to sketch what the local version of that order will look like.

At the county’s 4 p.m. Thursday briefing session, Chaffee County Public Health  (CCPH) Director Andrea Carlstrom outlined a draft proposal for what she termed “a careful, gradual approach,” to return to some version of normal, phasing the re-openings to assess the county’s progress.

“I got some updates from our governor and it’s very clear that this is up to us. We have one shot to get this right. We don’t want a second shutdown.” She cautioned that the exact details are still being worked out and that no final plan will be available until at least April 24, and perhaps later.

A chart outlined the Colorado “Safer at Home” order during Governor Jared Polis’ presentation this past week. Image by High Plains Media.

The public video briefing began with a tally of the continued deaths from COVID-19 in the county; two additional deaths that day bringing local deaths to nine. Chaffee Coroner Jeff Graff said with the latest deaths, the county has been averaging two deaths per week since April 1. “It’s just going to continue. One gentleman who passed today tested negative first, they did a test after he passed, and it was positive.”

Commissioner Greg Felt added “We’ve been trying to take [in] what the governor said two days ago, and some today that was even vaguer. This is throwing the future into our own laps. We feel a strong responsibility to health, and a strong social pressure to get it done. People are getting antsy. So we want to give people some vague good news tomorrow and, we hope, very detailed information by Friday.”

Phase I  Chaffee County (Proposed Only) Requirements for Opening

Businesses – beginning to operate at 50 percent occupancy, based on compliance checklists:

  • Forms certifying meeting the county requirements, including cleaning, social distancing rules
  • Signage for building
  • Requirements to wear a mask and use hand sanitizer
  • Temperatures – take and log employee temperatures upon arrival at work
  • A daily check-in form – monitor their health
  • Hand sanitizer and soap and water available…staffers assigned to disinfect (no word yet on who is responsible for acquiring these supplies)
  • Written instructions provided to employees
  • All workers 6 ft. apart, inside, on sidewalks, entrances.
  • Measures to prevent crowds from gathering – a limited # of occupants in-store to maintain distancing. Employee monitoring the door to maintain maximum capacity.

“We need to see efforts to minimize contact put in place, like some stores now have senior-only hours,” said Carlstrom. “People have been pretty creative about measures to reduce exposures. Also, now is not the time to carpool – take your own car, spread out, increase ventilation and disinfect.”

The actual rules related to Phase I business openings are still being refined. Especially important is the health check-in form for businesses for their staff. The group on the virtual conference discussed the need for a business accountability form (most likely a Google Docs form) to confirm they will meet reopening standards. Following a lengthy discussion, the county says that it might reassign county staff to work with CCPH to process the forms so backlogs don’t occur.

“I’m missing the accountability part of this. Some 61 percent of Americans feel good about the existing restrictions – not that they want them, but feel they are appropriate,” said Commissioner Greg Felt. “To let businesses open, we need an accountability aspect built into this form – some statement that says ‘I understand, I’ve made an investment in our business, so has everyone else. ‘ This is a community wide commitment. It should be understood by signing this, ‘I agree to everything written here. I understand this phase of the opening is tied to certain epidemiological data that might not be identified yet. My failure to follow this could hurt the entire community.’”

“This assumes that the entire county meets the required permissions – all of us, not just some of the county, the 14 days of declining cases,” said Commissioner Keith Baker. He was told that the county’s last non-Columbine Manor case was April 11, which right now (unless new cases come to light) is the start of the 14-day clock establishing declining rates.

There is mounting pressure to reopen the county from the business sector. “In the last eight hours I’ve had half a dozen conversations with businesses who just want some guidance – they want to be educated on what the requirements are,” said Chaffee Economic Development Corporation (EDC) Executive Director Wendell Pryor. They don’t want us to use a hammer they just want us to tell them what to do to comply.”

“The governor gave us an opening,” he continued. “It’s up to the counties to determine the level of degree of compliance. If we allow businesses to provide you with best practices for their categories, that might be a fast way forward – allowing them to present a plan on how they can come into compliance…

Carlstrom said that the outline for Chaffee County reopening is not being done in a void: She said she has had several calls with neighboring counties, consulting with subject matter experts in their own industries, all of which will come into play in the first phase of reopening.

The Chaffee County Calendar:

April 27 – Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center (HRRMC) elective procedures can open (these currently are not in the Chaffee local order).

April 27– ongoing for a May 1 start date – Business checklists submitted, reviewed, approved, and/or approved with recommendations. CCPH issuing certificates of business activation. This phase will need to include child care facilities.

May 1 – Chaffee County local order amended and extended – approving businesses to be open as long as they follow the items they certify on their checklist.

May 1-15 – depending upon guidance, consider reopening restaurants and bars if they are able to submit a creative proposal on social distancing. Carlstrom pointed out “We’re requiring masks in public, so have no idea how they are going to do that at a food establishment.”

May 15 – reopening to second homeowners.

June 1 – consider opening short term lodging, to tourism and lodging businesses that serve visitors. This would include campgrounds and RV parks (How and under what guidance is still to be worked out.)

Carlstrom’s communication with other counties is revealing. “Monday, Gunnison is letting their second homeowners back in – they’ve gotten a lot of heat. In Summit County all short term lodging is shut down through the end of May and they aren’t even talking about second homeowners…They are monitoring and enforcing crowding at trailheads,” said Carlstrom. “Eagle County is saying the next four weeks starting Monday are solely for locals – really all of them are saying May is for locals only, trying to get our communities back to normal.”

She cautioned about assuming that at every step this timeline will be perfect. “We’ll have to assess the reality at each step. Through each of the governor’s phases, if businesses can be held responsible for all the requirements, we can keep to it. Remember, for things like special events, the rule at will be no more than 10 people. But, as that number scales up – we are going to have to look at what event plans are in place and how we enforce the standards for distancing, and sanitation. We’re not there yet …We’re getting questions about weddings and we say – is your wedding 10 or less people? Let’s talk.”

According to the EDC estimate, there are 1,000 to 1,500 county businesses that will need to apply, be verified, and issued county certifications that they can operate. The county says it will try to find a good intersection between efficiency and accountability. With the volume of questions already arriving at CCPH, Carlstrom said to keep to this launch, her department will need processing help.

“To set this up so businesses can open up May 1, if we stay on the same tracking timeline, I would consider this our number one priority  – this is job 1 to get ready for May 1,” said Felt.

According to Carlstrom, there are other factors that some businesses might need to consider. “There should be a guidance for employers who have employees over age 65 with chronic conditions. I have gotten emails from workers who are fearful. They know they are more vulnerable. Think about the non-permitted construction category and we have also to figure out how we open up childcare, because folks are going to need that to go back to work.”

“This all presupposes the public is still practicing the safety things that got us to this point,” said Baker. “ If we suddenly have any community spread – we can’t do this. This isn’t a Roman Holiday – we can’t go nuts, or we’ll go back to a place that we haven’t been yet.”

“We are exactly in the middle of where everybody wants to be this weekend,” cautioned Salida Mayor P.T. Wood, about the potential to be inundated with tourists. “Everyone else is in mud season – and our valley and trails are perfect right now.”

Commissioner Felt reinforced the fact that Chaffee County is still closed to visitors. “This is not an invitation to visitors – it is an invitation to our businesses to work through the hiccups and challenges while it’s just us – the family. We don’t want people taking advantage and coming here prematurely.” He added though, that he has had some calls from businesses, telling him that “’We’re going to open May 1, so get your $&*! together!’ May 1 is the target.”