Earlier in October, Tri-County Health Department warned that Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties were at risk of moving to more restrictive levels on what officials call Colorado's COVID-19 “dial,” the framework that lays out which level of social distancing policy a county must operate under.
At the most severe end of that “dial” is a stay-at-home order, the policy Colorado enacted statewide in the spring.
At the other end is the “protect our neighbors” phase of restrictions, which only a handful of Colorado counties have qualified for.
In the middle are three levels of the safer-at-home order, the policy that came after the stay-at-home order in the spring. In mid-September, the state broke the safer-at-home policy into three levels that counties are placed under based on local COVID-19 spread.
Which level a county falls under on the dial depends on its rate of new cases, the percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, and whether hospitalizations are stable or declining.
Based on those metrics, Arapahoe County exceeded the threshold for safer-at-home level 1 on Sept. 18 and was notified on Oct. 2 that its status was in jeopardy of changing, according to the text of Tri-County’s order for Arapahoe. Adams County exceeded the threshold for safer-at-home level 2 on Sept. 28, according to the order for Adams.
Tri-County issued new orders in an attempt to head off a change to higher safer-at-home levels and the further restrictions that would come with that.
The new requirements for Adams and Arapahoe counties marked the first public health orders Tri-County Health Department has issued since its order on mask-wearing that took effect July 24.
The mask order expires in late October, and Tri-County officials have discussed extending it and “are very likely to do so,” said John Douglas, the agency’s executive director.
In July, Tri-County’s amended its mask order to align with Gov. Jared Polis’ statewide mask order that took effect July 16. Tri-County’s order, like the governor’s order, requires people to wear masks in public spaces.
The difference between the Tri-County and state orders is still likely to be the duration — Tri-County’s mask order lasted 90 days rather than the state’s 30 days. The state’s order has been renewed monthly.
Tri-County’s order is also likely to continue to require masks outdoors when social distancing cannot be maintained, Douglas said. That’s the other key difference from the state’s order.
“We’re probably going to extend it longer (than 30 days),” Douglas said. “There’s not much likelihood of us not needing high levels of mask-wearing in the near future, certainly not in the next 30 days.”
In what could be a preview of restrictions to come, Tri-County Health Department announced public health orders for Arapahoe and Adams counties that move up the last call for alcohol and tighten limits on personal gatherings — and, for Adams, prohibit spectators at high school sporting events and at adult recreational and league sports.
Since early September, Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties saw their first notably sustained increases in rates of new COVID-19 cases since July, according to Tri-County, the local health agency for those counties.
The agency warned earlier in October that the three counties must slow the spread or face tighter restrictions.
Tri-County issued its orders on Oct. 16 in an attempt to slow the spread in Adams and Arapahoe and keep those counties from moving to even more restrictions under the state's safer-at-home order, which would mean reduced capacity for businesses, places of worship and gatherings. If virus spread in a county becomes dire enough, it could ultimately be placed under a stay-at-home order like the ones in effect last spring.
Douglas County’s trend is more concerning than Tri-County would like, but it wasn’t alarming enough to warrant a new public health order there, said John Douglas, Tri-County's executive director.
“No one wants to see our communities and economy return to the widespread shutdowns we had this past spring,” Nancy Sharpe, Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners chair, said in a news release. “If we implement these mitigation measures now, we may be able to reverse these trends.”
Douglas, the health chief, said national officials project a “pretty good chance” that by the end of the year, a vaccine could be available for health care workers and first responders.
“The major message here is these are times that will challenge us — times we are sort of appealing to the community for resilience,” Douglas said. He added: “If we can make it through the holiday season or the winter, I think we’ll be getting to a place where vaccines can help us get through the epidemic.”
The “hottest spots” for the rise in new cases are northwest Aurora and southwest Adams County — the region where Thornton, Northglenn, Federal Heights and unincorporated Adams County areas sit, according to Douglas.
“But rates are up across the counties,” Douglas said, adding that “all boats have been lifted.”
The public health order for Arapahoe County goes into effect at 11 p.m. Oct. 16 and expires at the end of Nov. 1 unless amended or extended. It includes the following changes:
• All alcohol sales at restaurants and bars in the county will end at 11 p.m. instead of midnight. That includes alcohol sales for on-premises consumption and for takeout.
• Personal gatherings such as groupings of families, friends and neighbors are restricted to 10 people or fewer instead of the 25-person limit Arapahoe County has operated under for roughly the past month. That limit was part of the new least-restrictive level of Colorado’s safer-at-home order, which Arapahoe, Douglas and Elbert counties had qualified for in mid-September. Nothing in Tri-County’s order prohibits gatherings of members living in the same household.
• “Noncritical” office-based businesses are encouraged to increase options for working from home and to reduce in-person work to the greatest extent possible.
“Critical businesses” likely have the same definition as they do in Colorado’s updated safer-at-home order, the policy that came after the statewide stay-at-home order this spring. The public can view that order here.
The public health order for Adams County goes into effect at 9 p.m. Oct. 16 and expires at the end of Nov. 1 unless amended or extended. It includes the following changes:
• Spectators are prohibited at Colorado High School Activities Association-sanctioned sporting events and at adult recreational and league sports.
• Organized recreational and league youth sports are limited to 25 people per field, including spectators. Coaches and referees are excluded from the 25-person limit.
• Personal indoor gatherings are limited to no more than five people, and outdoor personal gatherings are limited to no more than 10. Nothing in the order prohibits the gathering of members living in the same household.
• All alcohol beverage sales must end at 10 p.m.
Some of the new restrictions reflect changes the counties would see if their virus trends require a move to a more restrictive safer-at-home level.
“Some of it is just a precursor,” Douglas, the health chief, said. “With Arapahoe, their personal gatherings would have been reduced to 10 (people) if they moved to level 2. And closing for alcohol sales would have been reduced to 11 p.m.” Adams County’s new last call for alcohol sales would be reduced in the same way as it would under a more restrictive safer-at-home level too, Douglas added.
Tri-County’s order for Adams restricted indoor gatherings more than a higher safer-at-home level would have, Douglas said.
Arapahoe’s order encourages more working from home, but that piece isn’t in Adams’ order because the workforce in Adams is much more likely to be “essential” workers that have to work in person, Douglas said.
But “there’s been a lot of observation of crowds at recreational sporting events,” Douglas added.
Tri-County’s contact-tracing shows that many who tested positive for COVID-19 attended public or private gatherings, according to news releases announcing the orders on Oct. 16. Limiting alcohol sales was an effective step in reducing coronavirus spread in other jurisdictions — including statewide — after restrictions during July, according to a news release for Arapahoe.
“We are seeing a growing number of outbreaks across the county, many of which are related to places of employment,” the news release for Arapahoe added.
A personal gathering is any gathering that doesn’t fall under the category of “regulated gatherings” in the state’s updated safer-at-home order, according to Tri-County’s orders. Personal gatherings generally include public or private gatherings, whether on private or public property.
A “regulated gathering” is a grouping of customers or participants in certain activities permitted under the updated safer-at-home order — for example, that includes classes at commercial gyms and studios, concerts, and other professionally organized events.
The personal gathering limits also do not apply to the following:
• Employees and volunteers of any business, government, nonprofit or not-for-profit entity while performing work for that entity;
• Any school-sanctioned educational activity;
• Any life rites such as weddings, graduations, funerals, other religious rites and worship services, conducted in strict compliance with the updated safer-at-home order;
• Organized events that meet the criteria in the state’s updated safer-at-home order for indoor and outdoor events;
• Participation in any activity required by law.
People at gatherings must follow all public health laws and orders about face coverings and must comply with social distancing requirements whenever possible, the text of the orders says.
Tri-County will seek voluntary compliance through education and warning notices, according to the orders’ text.
But anyone who violates the orders may be subject to the penalties provided in state law.
“Any business open to the public that violates this order may be subject to the suspension or revocation of its license by the appropriate licensing authority as provided by law,” the orders say.
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