Colorado's health department released new regulations Thursday that will take effect across the state Friday, lifting nearly all capacity limits in restaurants, gyms and other venues.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is phasing out its dial system that governed counties based on their levels of disease and instead will allow counties to make their own local regulations.
El Paso and Teller counties have announced they will not institute any local regulations. So, the state's new rules, in place through May 16, will be the only ones in effect locally. Other counties such as Pueblo are adopting the state's dial with local tweaks.
Under the new rules, gatherings of more than 100 people must adhere to 6-foot social distancing requirements, and those who attend them must wear masks. Gatherings of more than 500 people indoors, such as proms or graduations, require state approval. Venues that may exceed the 500-person cap are houses of worship, retail shops or restaurants with indoor dining and no large unseated areas like dance floors.
The state must also approve large outdoor events in venues of more than 30,000 square feet. The state order did not address institute capacity limits otherwise.
The mask mandate has also been extended in El Paso and Teller counties where 10 or more unvaccinated people or people with unknown vaccinated status are gathered. Masks are also mandated in certain settings such as hospitals, jails, state government facilities and schools.
The order also allows the state to intervene in counties if hospitals in that county are threatened to exceed 85% capacity.
The state's hand-over to county control is happening as Colorado hospitalizations tied to the virus rise, and the highly transmissible United Kingdom variant is suspected to be responsible for half of COVID infections statewide. Modeling by the University of Colorado released earlier this week showed, should infection control measures — like masking — drop, and if the variants continue to spread, hospitalizations and deaths could radically increase in the coming weeks and approach the December peak.
At the same time, state and local officials say vaccination efforts to reach older, more vulnerable populations have lowered mortality rates across the state, and officials say hospital capacity will not be challenged. Protecting hospital capacity was a core reason for instituting occupancy restrictions in the first place.
Mayor John Suthers said previously he was not inclined to institute local rules and expects residents and businesses to take responsibility for their own safety.
"The best and quickest way to recover from this pandemic and return to our 'normal' lives is for as many people as possible to get vaccinated," Suthers said in a statement Thursday. "We have the supplies and we have the medical professionals at the ready to administer vaccines to all residents 16 and over. ... We urge vigilance as we relax restrictions knowing that if hospitalizations or deaths increase, we may have to reimplement these restrictions, which would hurt both our culture and our economy."
In a Thursday night news release sent by the county, El Paso County Board Chair Stan VanderWerf urged citizens to "continue to take the disease seriously" for the "health, safety and vibrancy of our community."
“Our region’s greatest source of strength and resiliency has been how we have come together as a community throughout our response and recovery," he said in the statement. "It is our hope that we can continue that tradition as we near the end of the pandemic."
It is "vital" that community members vaccinate "as safely, quickly and efficiently as possible, and continue to practice prevention measures," El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said in the release.
El Paso and Teller counties were at level yellow on the state's dial as of Thursday, meaning that occupancy at gyms and restaurants was limited to 50%. The level of the dial was driven by the number of people per 100,000 testing positive, hospitalizations and the percentage of people testing positive. In El Paso County an average of 7.1% of people tested positive, above the 5% recommended by the World Health Organization for communities to reopen.
The expiration of the dial and no county-level regulations means businesses will largely have to decide for themselves what precautions are prudent.
Many employers will likely keep mask mandates and social distancing rules in place in order to ensure their businesses are safe, said George Russo, an attorney and director of the southern regional office of the Employers Council.
Employers should be looking to the updated federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines to guide workplace safety, and many of those measures will be ones that we have all become familiar with, such as six-feet of distance. The administration has also put more emphasis on providing fresh or filtered air, he said.
"We have seen employers that have taken extra steps to be cautious around COVID. ... Those employers are likely to take safety seriously," he said.
But compliance with federal guidelines is likely to be mixed because there are some employers who haven't taken the guidelines seriously previously, Russo said.
Teller County Commissioner Bob Campbell said he expected to see a myriad of approaches from local businesses owners implementing various levels of precautions.
"I would not be surprised to see a little bit of everything," he said.
He noted there are already a variety of approaches to preventing COVID the county since enforcement was focused on education and not punitive measures.
"We have never been the COVID police," he said.
He did expect some preventative measures to stay in place at the casinos in Cripple Creek, such as the separation of gaming tables.
The economies in Teller and El Paso counties have both largely weathered the economic storm of the pandemic well. In Colorado Springs, the only sector that hasn't fully recovered is tourism, Suthers told the City Council on Tuesday.
Teller County largely reaped the benefits of residents retreating to the mountains this summer. But Cripple Creek was hit hard by the closure of the casinos, Campbell said. The state's rules also picked economic winners and losers with smaller specialty retailers getting hit harder than big box stores, he said.