While El Paso County and much of Colorado awaits word on reopening businesses this week, three of the region's counties have received the go-ahead for restaurants to move beyond just takeout service as long as they adhere to strict social-distancing restrictions and other safeguard to prevent a resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Teller County on Friday joined Douglas and Fremont counties in being granted a waiver by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, letting such businesses as restaurants and gyms reopen after being shuttered for two months because of the danger of spreading the deadly virus.
The approval of Teller County's requested waiver came after Gov. Jared Polis said Thursday he anticipates restaurants will be able to reopen statewide sometime next week under guidelines his office plans to finalize this weekend.
"I'm excited," Polis told restaurant owners during an online town hall. "Finally, we're nearing a time where you guys are going to be able to have customers and be open."
Since stay-at-home orders were issued in late March to stem the coronavirus outbreak, the restaurant industry has been badly wounded, losing an estimated $975 million in April, according to a recent survey by the Colorado Restaurant Association. Restaurants, bars and gyms were among the first to be completely closed since the order was issued.
Under slightly less restrictive safer-at-home guidelines that followed, restaurants have been able to offer takeout and delivery, but the drop-off in business has still been dramatic, which some reporting a 75% or more falloff in income. Restaurants and churches have chafed at the rules, noting that grocery and liquor stores, for example, have been allowed to remain open throughout the pandemic because they were deemed "essential." Coronavirus outbreaks have been traced to those stores
Polis said last month that individual counties can apply for variances if they meet certain criteria, including proof of two weeks of a decline in the number of new coronavirus cases.
Draft guidelines released earlier this week proposed allowing restaurants to open with limited indoor capacity and extra spacing between tables. Restaurants would be encouraged to move tables outside, including into parking lots and along sidewalks and streets, where allowed by municipalities.
Teller County commissioners asked to reopen casinos in Cripple Creek as well as restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, churches and other places of worship countywide. Restaurants, places of worship, gyms and movie theaters are all allowed to open, the state's letter said, but bars and casinos will remain closed until further guidance is issued.
Under the stipulations, any planned large public gathering must be approved by the Teller County Board of Health. The plan must still include social-distancing measures and require face coverings, the state said. Festivals, concerts and fairs are still banned for now, it said.
In any confined, indoor space, only 50% capacity is allowed, the state letter read, and employees are required to wear face coverings and be monitored daily for symptoms.
Among the rules for restaurants, customers must wear face coverings until seated, and will be asked about COVID-19 symptoms before entering. Groups are limited to six people, and social-distancing measures inside must be enforced. No buffets are allowed, and customers are encouraged to make reservations ahead of time, it said.
Gyms will be required to do symptom screening as well, and implement social-distancing measures, the letter read. Frequent cleanings are required, no group classes are allowed, locker rooms will stay closed and employees must wear face coverings, it said.
Click here to read the full approval letter for Teller County.
Places of worship and movie theaters also must adhere to the social-distancing measures, frequent cleanings, symptom screenings and limited capacity rules.
If the county's threshold of 15 additional cases in one week occurs, the variance will automatically be rescinded, the state said. As of Friday, Teller County has had 16 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and 14 additional epidemiologically-linked cases. Two people in the county have died of the disease, state data shows.
Last week, El Paso County commissioners submitted a variance request to allow restaurants to reopen in-person dining services with social distancing measures in place.
“We recognize that economic health is a vital part of any community, and we know that local restaurants play a critical role in that,” said Susan Wheelan, director of El Paso County Public Health, in a statement. “We thank our residents for their patience while Public Health worked closely with hospitals, community leaders, the business partners and other experts to create a detailed and medically sound plan that aims to help reopen our local restaurants.”
El Paso County has yet to receive word from the state health department if its request had been approved, said spokesman Ryan Parsell.
Data from the state health department shows El Paso County has about 204 positive cases per 100,000 people. The fatality rate is about 12 people per 100,000.
Douglas County’s positive case rate is about 195 per 100,000, Teller is 127 per 100,000 and Fremont is about 54 per 100,000, the state’s data show.
Thursday, the state health department approved a similar variance request from Fremont County, with similar restrictions.
"We're absolutely thrilled to finally get a variance, especially right before Memorial Day weekend," Ashley Smith, Cañon City mayor said Friday. "We only have four active cases right now. We've been doing an awesome job of keeping COVID suppressed in Fremont County."
Friday, Douglas County was approved to reopen Park Meadows Mall, restaurants, gyms and churches once similar social-distancing measures were in place, a letter from the state health department said.
The Gazette’s Olivia Prentzel and Erin Prater, and Colorado Politics’ Ernest Luning contributed to this report.