Garfield County seeks to designate restaurants, other sectors as ’critical’ to work around Red level restrictions

Formal resolution to be considered at regular Monday county commissioners meeting

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Garfield County commissioners intend to designate restaurants, small retail businesses and gyms as “critical,” in hopes of allowing leeway for them to continue operating at the current levels even under the state’s new Level Red COVID-19 designation for the county.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Wednesday advised the county it was being moved to the “Severe Risk,” or Red level on the state dial due to the recent surge in new coronavirus cases and a worrisome trend in new deaths and hospitalizations.

“This … will require the county to implement restrictions across all sectors as defined by the state in its metrics dial,” CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan wrote in a letter to the commissioners, Public Health Director Yvonne Long and County Manager Kevin Batchelder.

Among those restrictions is that restaurants would have to suspend indoor dining, and limit their services to takeout, curbside or delivery, and, when available, open-air spaces, but limited to family/household dining groups only.

“Given the increase in incidence rate, case count and percent testing positivity, an implementation of additional restrictions is warranted at this time,” Hunsaker wrote.

“Should the county restore metrics for a less restrictive level at any time, the county would need to maintain those metrics for two weeks and complete the request process … in order to move to that level.”

County commissioners, in a special Thursday afternoon meeting, however, said they are not inclined to make a blanket move to impose Level Red restrictions throughout the county. Municipalities may still act to do so, commissioners said.

“My answer is, hell no, I’m not changing (to red). We’re staying exactly where we are,” Commission Chairman John Martin said.

“We need to do that for our businesses and our survival, as well as taking care of our folks, having faith in our health department to do their job and making sure that the priorities are correct for Garfield County,” he said.

Jankovsky said Level Red is extraordinarily punitive to restaurants.

He said he plans to meet Friday with several Glenwood restaurant owners to discuss forming a public-private partnership to administer some equivalent to Mesa County’s “5-Star” program, which allows restaurants to meet a higher health stand in order to remain open at a greater level than what the state dial indicates.

“I’m shocked and disappointed by the state doing this,” Jankovsky said. “From my perspective, it’s discriminatory against this particular business type, and the people who work for them.

“It affects people from the middle class who are just working hard trying to get through Christmas,” he said.

Jankovsky said he’s not convinced that indoor dining — with COVID-19 protocols of requiring masks except when eating or drinking, maintaining proper distancing between tables and groups, and following sanitary guidelines — is a major source of disease spread.

He also pointed to COVID-related hospitalizations in the county, which are stabilizing based on the latest statistics, and test positivity rate that remains below 15%.

Jankovsky offered the motion to formally consider a resolution at the commissioners’ regular Monday, Dec. 14 meeting designating restaurants, small retail, gyms and fitness facilities and outdoor recreation as “critical” businesses.

By doing so, those businesses, unless dictated otherwise by their local municipality, could operate at the current Level Orange restriction of 50% capacity. Last call for alcohol sales at restaurants would also continue to be 10 p.m. under the county’s rules, rather than 8 p.m. under the Red restrictions.

County Attorney Tari Williams and Josh Williams, public health manager for the county, said the “critical,” or essential, designation is similar to the state’s recent move to designate houses of worship as critical, and lifting the maximum capacity limits for those organizations.

According to a statement from the CDPHE on Thursday, the state this week did amend its public health orders to reclassify worship services and ceremonies, such as weddings and funerals, as essential with no capacity limits, so long as social distancing measures and mask rules are adhered to.

CDPHE, responding to several questions posed by the Post Independent, also said that the state works with counties to comply with the level restrictions those counties are under.

“Under Colorado law, CDPHE, the local public health agency and the district attorney have the authority to enforce an order,” CDPHE said in an emailed statement from the department’s public information office.

“If a county is unable or unwilling to enforce an order, the Colorado Attorney General, at the request of and representing CDPHE, can seek a judge’s order in state court to require a person or business to immediately comply with an order.”

The statement also clarified that Garfield County’s existing site variances for the Glenwood Hot Springs and Iron Mountain Hot Springs/Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park are not impacted by the move to Red. Sunlight Mountain Resort is also still allowed to open under its state-approved COVID-19 operating plan.

It remains a little unclear, however, where a county has the authority to reclassify businesses as “critical” as a matter of local policy.

On-site dining is a “critical piece” of a restaurant’s overall business, Williams said during the special meeting in explaining the county’s move.

As long as those businesses are following the public health protocols of requiring that masks be worn and following social distancing requirements, they should be able to operate as other critical businesses, he said.

At least that’s the county’s interpretation. State officials did not immediately respond Thursday night when that follow-up question was posed by the Post Independent.

Garfield County’s move to Level Red does open up the possibility for individual businesses to apply for assistance through the state’s new business relief program. That program provides assistance grants of between $3,000 and $7,000 for qualifying businesses that are in compliance with the Level Red restrictions.

The city of Glenwood Springs on Thursday also said it is moving ahead with plans to distribute grants in the amount of $2,400 each to restaurants from the city’s leftover federal CARES Act funds that were distributed earlier this year.

County commissioners have criticized the assistance fund programs, saying the grants won’t make a difference in keeping businesses afloat during what would amount to a shutdown.

“I don’t think businesses can survive on that,” Martin reiterated during the Thursday meeting. That impact “also trickles down to those who hold mortgages and leases, and there’s no protection whatsoever for them,” he said.

Public Health Director Long said other counties in the state are moving to designate restaurants and small retail businesses as critical.

She advised, though, that business patrons need to respect the businesses that are trying to stay open by following the public health rules of mask-wearing and distancing.

“That is what helps keep them open, and that’s what we’re fighting for,” Long said.

No direct public comment was taken during the special commissioners meeting, though more than 150 people were logged on to the Zoom session to hear the county’s response.

Instead, members of the public were directed to write their questions and comments into the chat function. Chairman Martin said the comments will be reviewed and responded to, as well as made public by Monday.

More Like This, Tap A Topic