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El Paso County commissioners unanimously approved a variance Tuesday that, with state approval, would allow several public places, including indoor malls, gyms, theaters and outdoor attractions, to reopen with limitations to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

The variance also included reopening plans for athletic training facilities, recreation centers, exercise studios, the indoor water park at Great Wolf Lodge, live performances, libraries and small private special events.

Citing respect for the businesses, El Paso County Public Health director Susan Wheelan told the commission, "We have compassion for what they are going through and they are informing us with their creativity, their innovation on how they can operate with a broader, comprehensive variance."

Under the request, facilities must limit their occupancy to 50% capacity or an amount that is necessary to maintain 6-foot distancing, whichever is less. The request will not place specific caps on occupancies, which differs from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment guidelines.

“This is a better approach for our community because we do have venues that have huge numbers that they can handle while still being able to maintain proper health procedures and social distancing,” Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said. "If we don’t do this, if we don’t get these companies open and get to a measure of cash flow while also maintaining proper safety, many of them won’t be back with us next year."

Gyms, Climbing Walls, Theaters

Industry-specific regulations were included in the variance.

For gyms, face coverings are strongly encouraged, except when exercising. Equipment should be separated by a minimum of six feet and wiped down after each use. Sufficient staff must be on site to make sure patrons are distancing from each other and cleaning equipment. Onsite childcare, hot tubs and saunas at gyms would remain closed.

Dr. Gloria Winters, chief medical officer for YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, said the health department’s “strategic guidelines” allow its facilities to reopen safely while mitigating the spread of the virus.

“We are walking a tightrope between healthcare and economics,” Winters said. “We know that we need a place that people can go to that they trust, a place where people can go to boost their immunity, decrease infection severity, and prevent chronic disease and improve their behavioral health and wellness.”

Under the variance, climbing gyms would be required to take reservations. Customer information would be kept for 21 days and made available to the health department if an outbreak occurs. Hand sanitizer would be “widely available” and climbers encouraged to use it before and after each climb.

Theaters must clean and disinfect seating areas and high-touch items between each performance and groups must sit six feet apart from other parties. During live performances, no more than 10 people should be on stage unless there is enough room for performers to maintain 6-foot distancing, in which 25 people can be on stage, the variance states.

Nathan Newbrough, Colorado Springs Philharmonic CEO, raised a concern about limitations to theater audiences, saying the Pikes Peak Center staff would have to limit occupancy to about 18% in order to maintain 6-foot distancing.

“Performing arts specifically was the first to be cut off and will be the last to return in full numbers. ... This gives us a path to be innovative because it gives us some thresholds to work with,” Newbrough said. “We understand that public health is not equal to fairness.”

Indoor Malls, Outdoor Activities

The variance calls for indoor malls to close areas that encourage group gatherings, including food courts. Mall officials can submit a request to El Paso County Public Health if they would like to open its food court.

Indoor and outdoor recreational activities, including park nature centers, ice rinks, laser tag facilities, indoor gun ranges, miniature golf courses and paintball centers, would be able to reopen under the variance, but equipment must be disinfected between each group's use. Groups must be limited to 10 people when inside and 25 people when outdoors, according to the variance. 

Attractions including art galleries, indoor and outdoor museums, Cave of the Winds, Manitou Cliff Dwellings and Flying W Ranch, would be able to reopen after the health department approves a safety plan that addresses ways in which they will mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Cave of the Winds general manager Grant Carey supported the reopening plan outlined in the variance, but said he thought several outdoor attractions were unfairly denied the opportunity to open, while others, such as zoos, ski areas and botanical gardens were approved weeks earlier.

Libraries, Private Events

Libraries, which currently provide only curbside services, would be permitted to open for the public, but must follow disinfection and distancing protocols, among other safety guidelines.

Under the variance, private events can occur if limited to 50 people or 50% of the venue’s occupancy. Seating plans must be developed to ensure physical distancing, Face coverings are “strongly encouraged” when 6-foot distancing is not feasible.

Employers must monitor workers for several symptoms, that can’t otherwise be explained, including cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, headache and sore throat, according to the variance. Those symptoms can be indicators of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

The variance request does not include bars, breweries, pubs, or other places that offer alcoholic beverages for on-premise consumption, unless there is access to food from a licensed retail food establishment. Arcades, amusement parks, rodeos, fairs, festivals and parades also were not included in the reopening proposal.

More than 100 businesses were consulted in the development of the request, said Dirk Draper, CEO of Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corporation.

Local health departments on Saturday were granted authority to allow “life events,” including weddings, funerals and graduations, said Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director of El Paso County Public Health.

The department is working with superintendents to devise safety plans for nine graduations planned between Thursday through Saturday, Kelly said. The number of family members allowed with graduates at each event will largely depend on the size of the venue, he said.

The variance request also calls for El Paso County Public Health to have the authority to adjust regulations in any local public health order based on epidemiological data and the county’s COVID-19 trends.

Dr. Robin Johnson, the agency's medical director, stressed the importance of residents wearing face masks, especially when 6-foot distancing isn’t possible. Frequent hand-washing, sneezing protectively into one's elbow and staying home when feeling sick also are critical until a vaccine is created, an effective treatment is found or herd immunity is reached, Johnson said.

The health department also is continuing its contact tracing efforts and will work with businesses that collect contact information from its guests, if an outbreak occurs.

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Twitter: @oliviaprentzel

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