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The giraffe exhibit at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo on Saturday, June 6, 2020. After nearly a three-month closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo has started the process of reopening to the public. The zoo expects to be open to the public on Thursday. Both members and other visitors are required to reserve or purchase tickets online at cmzoo.org. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

El Paso County's places of worship and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo are allowed to begin welcoming visitors under certain restrictions detailed in a variance request that was approved by Colorado's health department Friday.

Greater freedom for faith groups to meet has been a priority locally, and El Paso County submitted a variance to the state that would have allowed churches to open at 25% occupancy. Instead the state allowed El Paso County houses of worship to host meetings at 50% of their buildings' occupancy not to exceed more than 100 people. Faith groups may also host 175 people outdoors, the approved variance stated.  

The variance allows more attendees than the regulations statewide, which limit houses of worship to 50% occupancy or up to 50 people. 

But the state's cap on the number of people who can attend a service does not work well for all groups, said Stu Davis, executive director of COS I Love You, an association of churches in Colorado Springs. For example, some churches have large buildings that can seat thousands of people, he said. 

"We need to have them reconsider the idea of a hard number," he said.

El Paso County’s status in the coronavirus pandemic is considered at a "medium" level, according to the state health office that reviews variance requests.

"The county has had 1,802 cases to date, with 333 of those cases occurring in the last two weeks, which is a two week incidence of 47 per 100,000 and qualifies for the “medium” level in the variance framework," the health department's approval letter stated.

The Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs is launching its reopening in three phases. The first two phases will operate over a 14-day period and allow 300 tickets to be sold per hour. The third phase allows the ticket sales limit to be removed, but shuttles to the zoo will remain closed. The lack of shuttles will cap the number of visitors to about 4,500 per day, based on parking availability at the zoo.

The zoo’s maximum capacity is 20,000 people, "so this proposal is close to 25% capacity for the zoo," the state's approval letter said.

State health officials will reassess the zoo's operations in two weeks to determine if approval of phase three is appropriate.

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