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It’s one thing to stay at home, doing one’s part to help stop the spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19. It’s quite another to maneuver the new “Safer-at-Home” status that the State of Colorado entered today. The heated debate over when to restart the U.S. economy has obscured an issue that may prove just as thorny: How to do it? With the known U.S. death toll nearing 55,000 — some 25 percent of globally confirmed deaths, the question becomes: how to bring the economy back from the brink, while valuing human life and safety.

The public, for its part, doesn’t seem all that eager to “get back out there.” In fact, a 9News weekend poll revealed that close to 70 percent of Coloradans aren’t quite ready to rush back to crowded bars, or restaurants, or mall shopping. Their willingness to do so will be vital to economic recovery. The economy is a complex web of supply chains whose dynamics don’t necessarily align neatly with epidemiologists’ recommendations.

Colorado’s COVID-19 caseload is now approaching 13,500, with 680 dead. The statistics keep rising, even as the state begins the shift to a new status. But the continued lack of testing availability, and the noticeable lack of a contact tracing process in many areas, is making some nervous.

While tourism-dependent mountain counties are rushing to figure out what this means for their local economies, Denver County is ignoring the governor’s order, and keeping its residents on Stay-at-Home orders through May 8, While Arapahoe and Jefferson counties are going along with Denver, neighboring Douglas County has moved to the “Safer-at-Home” stage.

Eagle County, Colo. which was hit hard and hit early in the coronavirus pandemic known as COVID-19, was the first county to be allowed to shift from Governor Jared Polis’s statewide Stay-at-Home order to stop the spread of the virus. This was sooner than the rest of the state, which per the Governor’s press conferences last week, moved Colorado to “Safer-at-Home” on April 27. How this is being interpreted across the state is all over the board, leading to the question: As counties reopen in such a scattershot approach, who’s going to keep people in their own counties while the slow reopening goes on?

According to the Vail Daily, the state’s top public health official, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Ryan, granted the county’s request for exemptions from state orders on stringent Stay-at-Home requirements and gatherings of less than 10.

Ryan is a former Eagle County commissioner who lives in Edwards, who attended the Eagle County commissioner meeting in-person to grant the request. She congratulated Eagle County on Thursday for its response to COVID-19, one of the worst outbreaks in the state based on case rates per 100,000. The exemptions will also allow for the opening of certain parks and businesses including retail and service, provided social distancing guidelines are followed.

But Eagle County’s move is not shared by nearby counties. COVID-19 hit high altitude Lake County later than it hit other counties, and not as severely. Lake County, which just confirmed only its 12th case, announced its version of “Safer-at-Home”, cautioning those age 65 or with health conditions to continue to stay at home. Without establishing strict enforcement dates, it asked residents to stay in Lake County and not travel outside the county, and for second homeowners to stay away.

But the county is concerned for its all-important summer season. It reinforced social distancing guidelines while establishing May 4 as the day that non-essential businesses would be allowed to begin operation, with 50 percent staffing on-site.

It will continue to prohibit onsite food and liquor at bars and restaurants, while discouraging public gatherings and overcrowding; allowing grocery, pharmacy, pet food store or hardware stores to only sell items in those categories. Personal services such as hair salons and barbers will be allowed to reopen May 1.

Matching Chaffee County’s Safer-at-Home orders, short-term lodging operations will only be allowed beginning May 31, with the exception of those being used to house essential workers responding to the pandemic. It will continue to prohibit all public gathering spots including gyms, community centers, fitness centers, theaters, pools, through May 31. It added teeth to its order; establishing a $5,000 fine for those who do not comply with the order.

Centerville Ranch looking west toward the Collegiate Peaks; it borders the National Scenic byway. Photo courtesy of Central Colorado Conservancy.

Chaffee County has taken a measured approach to the new Safer-at Home status, establishing a strict and gradual timetable to reopening businesses. It is both a promise and warning: The county believes it has one chance to get this right. “If we do it wrong, and cases begin to rise and if businesses jump the county’s timeline, or if people don’t open social distancing standards, the county could lose its entire, critical summer recreation season,” said County Commissioner Greg Felt.

In fact, the county has made a point of telling its businesses that if they don’t feel comfortable with the timeline – they don’t have to open then; they can decide their own schedule based upon how safe they feel.

Chaffee County has a reason for concern: it is ringed by counties that have had higher COVID-19 case rates, and it is barely seven months since the Decker Fire, which impacted its fall shoulder tourist season. The county needs the summer recreation season to go well. Its schedule is couched as “may” not “shall”.

Chaffee PHASE 1 The following businesses may OPEN MAY 1:

  • Personal services including salons, tattoo parlors, dog grooming, personal training
  • Non-permitted construction
  • Libraries
  • Retail
  • Personal trainers (less than 4 people)
  • Art galleries
  • Real estate
  • Offices – Up to 50 percent of staff can work in person with social distancing in place starting May 4. Offices are encouraged to continue telecommuting through Phase 2.

Chaffee PHASE 2 The following businesses may OPEN MAY 16:

  • Second homeowners
  • Retail food establishments
  • Spas and hot springs
  • Gyms and fitness facilities
  • Faith-based organizations can only operate with 10 or fewer people while practicing social distancing

PHASE 3: short-term lodging and tourism industry businesses may OPEN JUNE 1.

Over in neighboring Gunnison County, where second homeowners from Texas are reported to have filed suit against the county for preventing them from getting to their second homes, county commissioners also showed backbone early on – sealing the county off and announcing $5,000 fines for those caught breaking the rules. In Summit County, images of crowded roadsides, as skiers flocked to catch end-of-season snow at Loveland, have raised concerns, but county officials have issued warnings instead of monetary fines.

Clearly, the confusion is causing — confusion; not ideal as states move to reopen their economies. What many Colorado mountain counties are hoping is that metro area residents, antsy after the long stay-at-home, will not rush to their favorite mountain hangouts and overwhelm local capabilities to create “safer at home” systems.  If too much happens, too fast, the critical summer season could be damaged in a way that will impact these treasured mountain communities for years to come.