Elbert County takes health rules into its own hands

After waiting in vain for waiver, commissioners act


The Elbert County Board of County Commissioners has voted unanimously to allow graduation ceremonies for Simla, Kiowa and Elizabeth high schools, and to allow houses of worship to resume in-person services without capping attendance.

The move on May 20 came despite county officials not yet having received approval of a partial waiver request the county had submitted to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for exemptions from the state's COVID-19 guidelines.

MORE: The latest on COVID-19 

Commissioners, meeting in their role as the Elbert County Board of Health, said they had been in contact with CDPHE and Gov. Jared Polis' office at least seven times since they filed the waiver request May 4, and had yet to receive any response saying the request had been approved or denied.

“They responded to our first request by asking us to send them information from a local hospital,” said Commissioner Chris Richardson. “We sent that on May 12, and since then, we have heard nothing.”
The three commissioners expressed frustration at the lack of communication, as they were told originally that turnaround times for waiver decisions would be handled quickly. They sent a letter to Polis and the CDPHE on May 19, inquiring about the status of the waiver and letting them know “we are obligated to make some decisions in our county that would be supported by the waiver, but we have to make decisions in absence of the waiver if we don't get a response,” said Richardson.
The county commissioners said they have worked closely with the Elbert County Health Department and public health administrator Dwayne Smith, and their actions were taken for safety and public health reasons. The commissioners admit they are unsure what repercussions might come from the state.
“We recognize we have no authority to grant the waiver, but we have an obligation to the safety of our citizens,” said Richardson. “If the state doesn’t like the fact that we have told churches what they can do safely, the state’s going to have to figure that out. We don’t want to go close churches.”
Colorado Community Media reached out to CDPHE for comment and got this response on May 22:
“CDPHE has been in active discussion with Elbert County on their variance request. They first submitted their variance application on April 12, CDPHE returned it with feedback, and then the county submitted a revised application. CDPHE has been working closely with them to help them improve their application. The department is now considering that application.
“CDPHE uses several criteria to determine whether a county is eligible for a variance. Those criteria include the prevalence of infections, hospital capacity, and any proposed containment measures or proposed alternative policies. The decision-making process also takes into account local conditions, such as the conditions surrounding the county and availability of crucial resources such as personal protective equipment for healthcare workers and other essential staff.
“Revisions to Elbert County’s proposed variance plan are necessary to protect public health, so CDPHE is disappointed with Elbert County’s decision to defy the public health order. If a county does not have a variance, they must follow the public health orders.”

Officials: people are gathering

Receiving the state waiver would officially allow decisions to be made on the local level, and according to commissioners, they are seeing people gathering and disregarding recommended guidelines. Guidance on the local level, they believe, will help.

“It's purely a safety and public health issue regarding the high schools,” said Richardson. “If they're not getting guidelines and help from the county health department, they will do nothing and families and individuals will take it upon themselves to do what they feel is best and might not be safest for the community.”

School officials had submitted proposals for commencement exercises to the county health department several weeks ago, outlining how the ceremonies would take place with a goal of safety, including social distancing, limiting the number of attendees and sanitizing procedures. Commissioners signed off on those in anticipation of the waiver being approved, and based on the original turnaround expectation of approximately five days for the waiver request.

“We were asked to approve plans that had been submitted for Big Sandy (Simla), Kiowa and Elizabeth High,” said Richardson. “The district needed time to coordinate and plan with parents and students.”

The board unanimously voted May 20 to ratify the approval of graduation plans.

The school districts confirmed their commencement dates as: Simla, 10 a.m. on May 30 at the football field; Kiowa, 10 a.m. June 27; Elizabeth, outdoors at 9:30 a.m. on June 6; Frontier (part of the Elizabeth C-1 district), outdoors at 10 a.m. on May 29. Those interested in attending graduations should first check with the districts on safety rules and restrictions.

Commissioners also addressed the issue of resuming in-person worship services in the county, stating: “We recognize that the right to worship is fundamental and protected by the Constitutions of both the United States and the State of Colorado, and as such we identify houses of worship as critical facilities that may operate with appropriate social distancing and risk reduction measures in place. We, the Board of Health, therefore authorize places of worship to be allowed to commence in-person services.”

Polis' executive order for “Safer at Home” doesn't specifically identify restrictions on religious institutions. Under state rules, houses of worship fall under the category of large gatherings — with an attendance limit of 10 — but they should be considered critical facilities, according to the Elbert County commissioners, whose vote May 20 did not place a limit on attendance numbers at worship services, effective May 24.

The health department and commissioners recommend that places of worship interested in opening their doors for in-person worship services contact them, and utilize plans for safe social distancing during services.

“We feel like this is a step in the right direction toward resuming some semblance of normalcy, and the ability to worship is a significant part of that,” said Commissioner Grant Thayer. “We also recognize the mental health and behavioral health components provided to people in the community.”

Commissioners weigh case numbers

Thayer said the low number of positive COVID-19 cases in the county — 54 reported at the time of the vote, with one confirmed death and one pending confirmation of a death — was taken into consideration by the commissioners.

“Our cases here have been family transmitted,” said Thayer. “A family member travels out of the county, comes home sick, and then their families test positive as well. We don't have a lot of community spread. And a large part of our county includes homes on large lots, so generally speaking we remain in good shape.”

Commissioners encourage all residents to utilize the county health department when planning any gatherings, or for any questions about reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“We encourage everyone to utilize the public health department. It's here for everyone in the county. They have expertise in how to contain and reduce the spread of this virus in our county,” said Richardson.


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