In a move that could reduce pandemic-driven restrictions on businesses, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers told the City Council on Tuesday that El Paso County and the city won't order local coronavirus regulations this week when the state hands control to counties.
How much control the state is giving to counties wasn't clear.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado health department, said Tuesday that the state will issue some rules covering large gatherings and indoor high-risk settings. But the details haven't been passed along, city spokeswoman Jamie Fabos said. The statewide mask order will remain in place through May 3, according to a recent state executive order.
Ryan also said she expects local health departments to keep some COVID-19 rules in place as regulations expire that were tied to the state's color-coded dial governing indoor occupancy limits at businesses and designed to slow transmission of coronavirus.
"We are strongly recommending that local governments keep social distancing and mask orders in place," she said.
Denver metro counties are expected to adopt the existing dial restrictions for the next month. Pueblo County is also expected to largely adopt the dial as well, although it will allow businesses to operate without 6 feet of social distancing if they are certified through the state's five-star program, according to a Tuesday news release from the city.
In contrast, Suthers said he would rely on individual responsibility and not impose local regulations. Businesses and other private entities can set their rules for social distancing and masks in El Paso County, Fabos said.
"I am not inclined to impose any restrictions over and above what the state is doing," Suthers said. The state is expected to regulate large crowds of more than 500 and gatherings in stadiums, he said.
El Paso County officials have no plans to limit capacity in businesses, county Public Health spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt said Tuesday.
"If any targeted response is needed, we will address these specific areas of concern as they arise," she said.
The move from state regulations to local control comes even as hospitalizations are rising in the Pikes Peak region, the more contagious United Kingdom coronavirus variant is becoming more common, and researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health are predicting an increase statewide in hospitalizations and deaths if COVID-19 restrictions are loosened.
Researchers in the latest COVID-19 modeling report released Tuesday called for keeping the pandemic policies in place until mid-May -- on either the state or local levels -- when more residents will be vaccinated.
"Delaying policy changes until mid-May will prevent large numbers of deaths and hospitalizations," they wrote.
"Moreover, delaying policy changes until mid-May will allow for more options in terms of the number and magnitude of changes that could be pursued without a major increase in hospitalizations and deaths," the report continued. If the state relinquishes control in April "and this change is paired with either people adopting more risky behavior or additional policy changes, there could be a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations that approaches the December peak."
State health officials said at a news conference Tuesday that the U.K. variant alone accounts for about half of new COVID-19 infections in Colorado. How prevalent that variant becomes in the coming weeks, how many Coloradans get vaccinated and whether they continue to mask and socially distance, will have a profound effect on the disease's presence and impact on the state over the next month, they said.
Suthers acknowledged Tuesday the city is seeing its COVID-19 numbers move in the wrong direction with hospitalizations rising locally to 67 from 44 in the past week. At the same time, deaths have fallen off with only three since April 4, El Paso County data show.
The percentage of people testing positive for the virus is almost 7% in El Paso County, above the 5% reopening threshold recommended by the World Health Organization, according to testing data.
Colorado College molecular biology professor Phoebe Lostroh called the move from precautions "shocking" and said she expected younger residents to be hospitalized as the U.K. variant spreads.
"It’s just too bad to give up now," she said.
Lostroh also said inconsistent rules among counties on the Front Range could pose a problem for the cautious counties.
"To have regulations in Denver and not having them in Colorado Springs is going to make it more dangerous in Denver," she said.
Hewitt urged residents to get vaccinated, calling the current efforts a race against the variants. About 18% of adults in the county are fully vaccinated, county public health data show. About 70% of a population needs to be vaccinated to achieve what's called herd immunity, meaning a sufficient population is immune to the disease to stop or slow the spread of disease.