Colorado on Saturday will begin to ease coronavirus restrictions that have sharply curtailed capacities for restaurants, gyms and other businesses, a change hailed by Pikes Peak region officials as a sign of a budding recovery.
Gov. Jared Polis, in a Friday news conference, said the update, which is dubbed “Dial 2.0” and is set to go into effect at 9 a.m. Saturday, is a “more responsive tool that will allow counties to swiftly move up or down based on their needs.”
El Paso and Teller counties will move from Orange to Yellow on the state Department of Public Health and Environment's COVID-19 dial Saturday allowing restaurants, gyms and other businesses to increase how many customers can gather at one time, news releases said. For example, restaurant and gym capacity will go up from 25% or 50 people to 50% or 50 people. Restaurants with larger spaces could be allowed 150 people with social distancing.
El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf welcomed the change and the opportunity it offers businesses. He also called on residents to continue abiding by safety protocols so the community can continue moving toward more relaxed restrictions safely. He is looking forward to a far more normal second half of 2021 as vaccinations roll out and cases continue declining, he said.
"I am excited for the entire state of Colorado, but especially for El Paso county. ... Better days are coming and they are not a long time away," he said.
The change in the dial to some degree makes the 5-star program, launched earlier this week and meant to allow restaurants to operate at higher capacities, moot. Normally, the program would allow restaurants who implement safety precautions such as placing tables apart or upgrading ventilation to increase capacity to the next less restrictive level on the dial, in this case Blue. But business can't operate under level Blue restrictions until 70% of 70-year-olds statewide are vaccinated with at least one dose, an El Paso County news release said.
However, the certification program could offer businesses some assurances it could keep its higher capacity, if the county were to see a spike in COVID-19 cases and tighter restrictions were implemented, said Ryan Parsell, a spokesman with El Paso County. The county has received 20 to 30 applications so far for the 5-star program, he said.
The dial determines the capacity limits under which businesses in each county must operate and will continue to range from Levels Green to Purple. But it features a number of changes including:
Increasing the frequency of new cases for Levels Blue, Yellow and Orange from a maximum of 75, 175 and 350 cases per 100,000, respectively, to a maximum of 100, 300 and 500 cases per 100,000. The new case frequency to qualify for Level Red is increasing from more than 350 cases per 100,000 to more than 500 per 100,000
Decreasing requirements for positivity rates for Levels Yellow and Orange from 10% and 15%, respectively, to 7.5% and 10%
Shifting the focus on hospitalizations from local hospital capacity to the number of hospitalized county residents
Reducing the 14-day benchmark used to gauge incidence rate, percent positivity of testing and resident hospitalizations down to seven days
Granting flexibility on positivity and incidence rates to counties with populations under 20,000
A preliminary map shared by CDPHE Executive Director Jill Ryan showed those changes will shift a majority of counties down at least one level. Under the current dial, Hinsdale County sits at Level Blue, nine others are at Level Yellow and the remaining 54 counties are in at Level Orange. The new dial would shift 21 counties to Level Blue and 33 to Level Yellow while only 10 Western Slope counties will remain at Level Orange.
While the metrics used to determine counties’ level on the dial may be shifting, the restrictions in place at each level are largely unchanged. The only major changes comes to caps in restaurants for counties in Level Yellow, which Ryan said will be raised to50 % capacity or 150 people.
Otherwise, capacity limits and school settings for each level will remain in place, as will relaxed restrictions through the state health department's 5-Star State Certification Program, which allows businesses that comply with enhanced safety protocols to operate one level down on the dial. But those businesses in counties in Levels Yellow or higher won’t be able to operate at Level Blue until 70% of 70-year-olds in the state are vaccinated with at least one dose.
It’s the first change to the dial since November, when Polis added a Level Purple. Polis said he anticipated another update to the dial in the coming months “that goes further to tie it into a percentage of folks in different demographics that are vaccinated.”
The Gazette's Mary Shinn contributed to this report.