Editor's note: This story was corrected to clarify the potential for coronavirus spread in El Paso County. The county would see thousands of new cases of COVID-19 only if the disease started spreading exponentially.
As El Paso County public health officials projected the spread of new coronavirus cases, Colorado Springs City Council debated on Monday whether to relax or tighten restrictions meant to prevent the spread of the disease.
If the spread of coronavirus cases does not increase from current levels as more activity is allowed, the county could see 600 to 750 new COVID-19 cases in month, according to El Paso County Public Health officials Dr. Robin Johnson, medical director, and Stephen Goodwin, chief data scientific strategist.
If the virus started to spread exponentially, doubling about every 15 days, then the county could see thousands of new cases in a month. Given the potential spread, residents need to stay committed to a cautious approach, Johnson said.
Even though El Paso County has one of the largest populations in the state, it has seen fewer cases than Denver, Arapahoe and Adams counties, proving that social distancing measures can be successful, she said.
Colorado Springs City Council questioned county health officials about whether they should be enforcing more restrictive rules or working toward more business activity.
Council President Richard Skorman seemed to support city or county government requiring residents to wear masks rather than leaving it up to individual businesses to ask their customers to wear them.
Customers are encouraged to wear masks while shopping in businesses such as grocery or clothing stores, but the state does not require it, said Lori Seago, attorney for El Paso County Public Health. The state requires customers to wear masks while receiving a service where they are in close contact with another person for a long period, such as during a hair cut or massage, she said.
Requiring masks could help ensure the spread of virus stays slow and tourists feel comfortable visiting over the summer, Skorman said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone wear cloth masks in public because many people who contract the virus may not show any symptoms and can spread it unknowingly.
Skorman also said he was open to creative solutions to encouraging masks because it has been a divisive issue locally.
"We have a lot of people in this community that are just really objecting being told what to do," he said.
Few councilors weighed in on Skorman's suggestion and the topic seemed unlikely to go beyond discussion.
Councilman Dave Geislinger likened the argument on masks to rules against smoking in bars or restaurants, which required extensive public debate.
"Nobody is malevolent or evil; everybody has a perspective that is legitimate and deserves to be heard," Geislinger said.
Mayor John Suthers said last week he didn't think requiring masks locally would be appropriate, although he is strongly encouraging residents wear them.
Councilman Andy Pico supported relaxing precautions and allowing more businesses to open.
"When you kill the patient with the cure you end up just as dead. ... Every day we stay locked down is that much worse on everybody trying to recover," he said.
El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said her department is working on a variance to submit to the governor's office to allow restaurants to provide dine-in services. Gov. Jared Polis has not set a date for re-opening restaurants in the state.
"We are going to do all that we can to relax or ease restrictions in our community," she said.
The restaurant and hospitality sectors in the county have seen the highest number of jobs lost in the county, she said.
Statewide, nine of every 10 restaurant operators has laid off or furloughed workers since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, based on National Restaurant Association and Colorado Restaurant Association surveys conducted between April 10-18.
El Paso County Health officials are also working with law enforcement on a criminal summons process to hold businesses accountable for breaking public health orders, Seago said.
In general, county public health officials have been successful in asking business owners for voluntary compliance with public health orders, Seago said.
"The vast majority of complaints or concerns have been resolved with one or two phone calls," she said.