El Paso County commissioners approved variances Thursday that, with state approval, would allow churches and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to reopen with limitations to prevent a resurgence in the spread of coronavirus.

Commissioners lauded both variances as necessary for the mental health of the community. 

"Faith is critically important to our personal well-being," Commission Stan VanderWerf said. 

Churches and the zoo were closed to help prevent the spread of the virus along with restaurants, gyms, and other businesses that attract crowds. Since mid-March, the state has limited gatherings to a maximum of 10 people. 

Chairman Mark Waller said he hoped to see an increasing number of variances come forward, even though a variance requires approval from El Paso County Public Health, county hospitals and the state. 

"It's been a very cumbersome process," he said. 

The state has approved two county variances after about a week of review allowing the reopening of restaurants at 50% capacity and for modified graduation ceremonies.  

Public health data show it is safe to allow church services and the zoo to resume limited admissions, said Dr. Robin Johnson, medical director for El Paso County Health. Although allowing more business and recreational activity has been accompanied by an increase in the number of coronavirus cases, the majority are younger people between 20 and 40 years old who are less likely to need hospitalization, she said.  

"The time for this pivot is appropriate," Johnson said. 

The variance to reopen churches would limit occupancy to 25% and require households or those in the same social circles to sit 6 feet apart. Churches would also be encouraged to record contact information for each group visiting and record where the attendees are seated to help investigate an outbreak.

Staff and volunteers would be required to wear cloth masks, and attendees would be encouraged to wear them, the proposed variance states.

The commissioners asked public health officials to revise the document so that it does not ban the passing of communion on plates through congregations after receiving an email from a pastor who objected to a mandate regarding how communion must be handled.

“The communion is perhaps considered the most holy part of their service,” Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez said.

The proposed variance now discourages use of common communion plates passed among attendees.

Churches have been active throughout the shutdown, livestreaming, holding drive-up services and organizing service projects. Some churches have also chosen to reopen, including the Catholic Diocese of Colorado Springs. 

But a state-approved variance would allow more churches to hold in-person meetings, said Glenn Packium, an associate pastor with New Life Church. 

"The church is called to be a safe place to help people find healing," he told county commissioners. 

Some churches are also likely to go beyond the measures called for in the proposed variance to protect congregations, said Yemi Mobolade, chairman of the COS I Love You board, an association of churches in town. 

Woodmen Valley Chapel, a church with four locations, is expecting to hold small "huddles" through the summer instead of large services because following the proposed guidelines would present challenges for the large church, said Josh Lindstrom, lead pastor. With limited occupancy and a large congregation, it would take numerous services to accommodate all who want to attend, he said. 

It would also be tough for the large church to record where people are seated during services to facilitate contact tracing, he said. 

Instead, the church is planning to hold gatherings of 10 to 15 people that will watch recorded services together in church facilities and in homes to allow church members to interact with people outside their families and build relationships, he said.

"I just think people miss relationships and, awesome as Zoom is, it is not the best substitute," he said. Zoom is an online video chat program that exploded in popularity as coronavirus prevention measures limited in-person events. 

The small-group model will allow the church to contact everyone who may come into contact with a COVID-19 patient through church quickly, he said. 

However, Lindstrom said he appreciated the commission's work on the issue as a matter of fairness. 

"I think it’s great the county commissioners are willing to give the time to local churches," he said. 

Zoo could drive tourism

The zoo has substantial space for visitors to spread out, allowing it to operate safely, said Bob Chastain, president & CEO of the zoo. It can also be a driver of the local tourist economy as Coloradans revise summer travel plans, he said. 

"We can be a state treasure that will help this economy start moving again," he said. 

If approved, the requested variance would let Cheyenne Mountain Zoo reopen in three phases, starting Monday.

The variance proposes reopening the zoo to members only for the first five days and limiting tickets to 300 per hour. Only 25% of visitors normally allowed in buildings could enter until June 15.

On June 6, the zoo could be reopened to the general public, but tickets would still be limited to 300 per hour, the proposal states.

The zoo would stop metering ticketing on June 15, but it would cap attendance between 4,000 and 4,500 visitors per day, which is about 25% of the zoos overall capacity, said Lori Seago, El Paso County Public Health's attorney. 

The zoos gift shops and restaurants would be open following the guidelines for other similar operations outside the zoo, she said. 

The zoo would also be allowed to hold events, such as weddings, following social-distancing guidelines and capping attendance at 50 people. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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