City of Glenwood caught between county and state’s COVID restrictions hard place
Discussion about what level to apply on City Council’s Thursday slate
A standoff between Garfield County and state public health officials over COVID-19 restrictions for certain business sectors in the county leaves Glenwood Springs stuck in the middle.
City Council on Thursday is slated to discuss the current restrictions under the state’s orange (high risk) level on its COVID-19 dial, and how the county commissioners have decided to apply that in Garfield County.
Though Glenwood Springs has been ahead of the state in some regards when it comes to COVID precautions — including having one of the first mask mandates in Colorado — for the most part the city has been inclined to follow state guidance, Mayor Jonathan Godes said.
“I don’t think there’s a question that we are required to follow state law and the governor’s orders,” he said ahead of the Thursday night council discussion.
With the state saying one thing regarding the orange-level restrictions and the county saying another, though, “we do need to have some conversation about what that means for Glenwood Springs,” Godes said.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) on Nov. 19 moved Garfield County from yellow to orange on the state dial due to the increasing number of new COVID-19 cases, a high test positivity rate and a worrisome increase in hospitalizations locally.
That meant that restaurants, gyms and fitness centers and churches are to operate at 25% of indoor capacity, or up to 50 people, depending on square footage, according to CDPHE’s COVID-19 level descriptions.
County commissioners have maintained — amid harsh criticism from some constituents concerned about the public health impacts — that sector-wide variances impacting those types of operations that were granted by the state back in May remain in effect.
The variances allowed those sectors to operate at 50% of indoor capacity, same as under the less-restrictive yellow level on the state dial.
CDPHE officials, including Chief of Staff Mara Brosy-Wiwchar, have repeatedly said that, while site-specific variances may remain in place under the orange level restrictions, sector variances do not.
Garfield County currently has three site variances in place for the Iron Mountain Hot Springs, Glenwood Hot Springs Resort and Hanging Lake. Those remain in effect, even under the orange restrictions.
Brosy-Wiwchar repeated the CDPHE’s position in a Wednesday email to city officials, writing, “The sector-wide variances previously allowed in Level yellow are no longer valid due to Garfield County’s movement to Level Orange.”
So far, though, CDPHE has not said if it will seek to impose any penalties on the county or specific businesses that continue to operate at 50%. Brosy-Wiwchar did not immediately return a request for comment on that question Wednesday.
Garfield County Public Health has not received any additional follow-up communication from CDPHE since the Nov. 19 letter officially moving the county from yellow to orange-level restrictions.
County commissioners, during a brief special Monday meeting to hear a public health update, restated their position that the variances stand unless the state formally acts to rescind them.
Commission Chairman John Martin further said in an emailed statement Wednesday that the county’s “Level Orange as Applied in Garfield County” chart serves to guide the county’s own compliance and enforcement actions.
That chart “represents a more locally appropriate balance between the numerous considerations, risks, and burdens effecting our entire community,” Martin said.
However, he acknowledged that the state retains the right to come in and enforce the regulations at the level it has set.
“The most important thing is that the public is made aware of the county’s position and how and where it may differ from the state’s,” Martin said. “That is what our chart achieves.”
The goal, he said, is to provide people with the information needed to make “responsible and informed” personal decisions about what activities to engage in, and what establishments to visit.
For now, restaurants, gyms, churches and guided recreational activities “deserve this modest flexibility at this time,” Martin said. “We maintain that this is the proper balance in our county.”
CDPHE moved to the dial system of determining COVID-19 risk levels on a county-by-county basis in September. At that time, it clarified how sector-wide variances would be handled if a county moves to a more-restrictive level.
“Only site-specific variances are authorized under the dial,” according to a Q&A posted to the CDPHE website, dated Sept. 9.
“So, if a county with an old sector-wide variance moves to a more-restrictive level, it loses the variance and it does not gain it back if the county returns to the less-restrictive level,” according to the Q&A document. “Only site-specific variances could follow a different process and be reauthorized.”
The discussions and head-scratching continues as Garfield County’s COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.
Two of the three primary metrics the state uses to determine risk level — the two-week incidence rate (1,004 per 100,000 people, as of Wednesday) and new hospitalizations (4 out of 14 days of stable or declining hospitalizations) — have actually moved beyond orange to the red level. The county’s test positivity rate of 12.9% remains at the orange level.