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Barber Genaro Vasquez, 88, gives long-time customer Ricky Lopez a hair cut at his shop, Downtown Barber Shop, in Colorado Springs after re-opening on Friday, May 1, 2020. El Paso County Public Health officials are urging residents to wear masks and practice social distancing to slow the spread of the virus. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

Tougher restrictions on restaurants, gyms and other businesses could be coming to El Paso County, health officials warned Tuesday, citing coronavirus cases spiking and hospitals filling in a reversal if favorable conditions that allowed some operations to open more fully under a state-approved waiver.

Officials said residents must get serious about wearing masks and taking other preventative measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in order to maintain the state variances allowing greater activity. 

"Even though it’s difficult to accept for some of us, it doesn’t make it any less real," Dr. Leon Kelly, deputy medical director for El Paso County Public Health, said in a presentation to the El Paso County Commissioners. 

The county has seen 115 new cases per 100,000 residents over the past two weeks as of Tuesday, up from about 25 new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks in mid-June, according to Public Health data. The state has about 90 new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks as of Tuesday, up from a low of 43 new cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks in June, according to numbers from Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

-RELATED: Video | Dr. Leon Kelly asks county commissioners "How many people is the right amount of people to die?"

The percentage of patients testing positive for the disease has also risen to about 7%. The state would like the county to stay below 5% to maintain its variances, Kelly said. 

The variances granted to El Paso County allowed Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to open and many venues such as restaurants, gyms, houses of worship and malls to reopen at a higher capacity than allowed under the state health emergency declaration. In a month, if the county has not succeeded in slowing the virus, the state could revoke the county's variances, Kelly said.

Hospitalizations are also on the rise and in two weeks, if nothing changes, UCHealth may have to stop elective surgeries in order to maintain capacity to treat COVID-19 patients, he said. As of Monday, UCHealth was caring for about 30 patients either hospitalized with COVID-19 or hospitalized awaiting test results, health system spokeswoman Cary Vogrin said.

"They are not in trouble today," Kelly said of the hospitals "...They could be in trouble in the near future."

The disease is spreading most among younger residents who are less likely to need to hospitalization, but because so many of them are getting sick, there is no doubt some of them will need it, he said. Hospitals in the area can only tolerate about two new cases each day, in part, because COVID-19 patients typically need to stay hospitalized for several weeks, he said. 

Turn around times for test results are also starting to grow again as communities across the state and region see increased cases, Kelly said. The state lab is reaching capacity and starting to send out samples to private labs, which are also getting samples from Texas and and Arizona where the numbers of cases have surged. 

"What we see happening is indisputable ... It does no good to pretend this is not happening," Kelly said. 

Mitigation plan

The county submitted its state-required mitigation plan for slowing the spread of the virus on Monday. If following those two weeks, the numbers have not come down, the number of people allowed in some venues will droop based on how many people per 100,000 residents are getting sick. The state currently allows 175 residents to gather indoors in El Paso County and 250 people to gather outside if social distancing can be maintained. The maximum number allowed could go down to 50 people inside and 125 people outside if the spread of virus isn't slowed, according to the state health department. 

Kelly said studies have proven wearing masks can cut the rate of transmission because the disease spreads through droplets that can hang in the air after someone talks or coughs. A survey of the largest Walmart in El Paso County showed about 60% of residents wearing masks, comparable to what's seen across the state. In order to slow the disease further, 80% to 90% of residents need to wear masks, he said.  

Mask mandates can improve compliance. 

"You can only ask people so many times. .... We don’t ask people to not build a fire during a fire ban," he said. 

He later asked the officials how they would help slow the spread of disease. 

"What are the five of you going to do to help us stop what is happening right in front of our eyes?" he challenged. "What is our city council going to do?"

Commission Chairman Mark Waller said a mask mandate would likely be impossible to enforce and should not be enacted. 

Commissioner Cami Bremer said government should not mandate behaviors, but she would encourage residents to wear mask. 

"I have faith in our community to do the right thing," she said. 

Reopening schools

Commissioner Holly Williams said the county cannot get around the standards set by the state and meeting them should be a high priority so schools can reopen. 

Kelly wrote guidelines for schools to follow if they reopen in August, but asking schools to prevent the spread while so many in the area have the virus would be asking them to do the impossible, he said. 

Most local school districts have not yet made decisions about requiring masks.

The county guidelines state that all school staff and students will be “encouraged to wear masks to the greatest extent possible while in proximity to other people” when they return to in-person classes.

Initial plans call for employees to be required to wear masks in classrooms, on buses and elsewhere on school property. To meet social distancing guidelines and allow for more passengers, students riding buses would need to mask up.

Student mask-wearing remains undetermined in many districts, including Colorado Springs School District 11. The district’s “Return to Learn” document for reopening buildings states facial coverings for students will be “highly encouraged but not required” at school, but masks will be required for all employees.

The plans aren't final, D-11 spokeswoman Devra Ashby said.

The district now is “leaning toward students wearing masks,” Ashby said, perhaps with younger students not being required to do so.

“Things will change as we receive more guidance from El Paso County Health,” she said.

At least one school district in the region, School District 49, has decided to require masks for all students, staff and guests in classrooms, hallways, offices, busses and all district facilities.

The decision was based on a D-49 survey that showed teachers and other employees had “stronger expectations for mask wearing” that will “more closely match their needs,” Chief Education Officer Peter Hilts said in a letter to employees and parents. “Requiring masks for everyone increases the confidence and support for staff members, and thereby preserves the option of in-person learning supported by our full workforce.”

D-49 had planned to require staff only to wear masks and recommend students wear masks.

The changing landscape of COVID-19, with a resurgence of cases locally, as well as research from health care experts showing masks are a tool to help prevent the spread, also influenced the decision, D-49 spokesman David Nancarrow said.

Students who didn’t wear them would have to do online learning.

The majority of parents who were among the 3,000 survey participants indicated want an in-person return to classes, instead of a remote learning model, Nancarrow said.

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

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