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El Paso County commissioners advocated Tuesday for reopening churches, dine-in restaurant areas and other businesses ahead of state orders, but county public health officials said more work is needed to ensure the spread of coronavirus can be controlled before applying for waivers from the state.

The commission has faced pressure from residents on both sides of the issues: those who want to see the economy reopen faster to respect civil liberties and those who want officials to move more slowly to protect public health, commission chairman Mark Waller said. But ultimately the commissioners have very little control over public health orders and have not been consulted by the state on appropriate next steps.

“The state government is driving this bus, and they have really given us zero authority to change things moving forward,” Waller said.

El Paso County Public Health and county hospitals must agree to applications for variances to the state’s Safer at Home order before the county commission can vote on them. After that, the variances must be approved by the state, Waller said.

The commission on Tuesday approved a variance to allow modified high school graduations, leading some commissioners to question why other variances aren’t warranted.

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Public health officials started with a graduation variance because the young students are unlikely to get critically ill and they can be identified if one was to test positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, said Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director with El Paso County Public Health.

When residents get sick with COVID-19, public health officials need to be able to find all the people the person could have exposed to the virus through contact tracing and advise them to quarantine or self-isolate, he said.

As an additional protection, graduation ceremonies could be canceled if the numbers of COVID-19 cases started to rise, Kelly said.

Other events carry more risk than the graduations because of the number of people involved and the difficulty in tracking the movements of attendees if one were to get sick, he said.

El Paso County can move faster than other areas of the state because sufficient testing capacity is in place, the county has seen a sustained decrease in cases, and hospitals have capacity to care for patients, Kelly said.

Health officials are working with church leaders and the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association on steps they need to take to reopen if variances are sought and approved, he said. Data tracking the spread of coronavirus will dictate the right time to apply for variances, Kelly said.

“We are going to go as fast as we can,” he said.

Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said he would like to see variances prepared in days or hours, not weeks. The application for a variance for high school graduations took three weeks to prepare.

“We have got to figure out how to go faster than that because of the economic harm that continues to take place,” he said.

VanderWerf called on the public health officials to consider variances for campgrounds, nonessential manufacturing businesses and preventative dental care.

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez backed reopening dine-in service in restaurants and greater freedom for churches to hold services, saying the falling number of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the county would justify a variance request for those activities.

“We want to make sure this is done smartly and reasonably,” he said.

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

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

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