Summit County officials express frustrations over variance denial
BRECKENRIDGE — When the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment denied Summit County’s request for a variance from the state’s safer-at-home order, it was analyzing incorrect data, county officials say.
Amy Wineland, Summit County public health director, wrote a letter to state health department Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan on May 15 requesting a variance to open short-term rentals and restaurants. The request was denied Sunday, May 24. The next day, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order allowing restaurants across the state to open at 50% capacity.
Because of Polis’ order, the restaurant aspect of Summit County’s variance request is no longer relevant, but the fate of the county’s short-term rentals hangs in the balance. Summit County officials have gone back to the state, asking the health department to reconsider the variance because it did not use accurate data in the denial of the request, local officials said.
According to a letter from Ryan to Summit County public health officials, the county’s request was denied based on an “increasing number of cases and a percent positivity of tests” in the county.
“Summit County has had 41 cases of COVID-19 in the past two weeks for an incident rate of 132 per 100,000 people, which is above the state rate of 100 per 100,000. Also, your testing positivity rate ranges from 7-19% for the past two weeks, and we prefer to see it consistently under 10%,” Ryan wrote.
According to the state public health department’s website, counties that request a variance have to prove a downward trajectory of cases within a 14-day period or a decrease in positive test results over that same two-week time frame.
At Wednesday’s joint Summit County Board of Health and Board of County Commissioners meeting, County Manager Scott Vargo said the state’s data analysis had a number of inconsistencies. For example, the county’s positivity rate numbers are around 11%, not 19% like the state suggested, he said.
The state’s claim that the county has seen 41 cases of the virus in the two weeks before May 24, when the letter was written, is also incorrect based on the county’s daily update of case numbers on its coronavirus webpage.
According to Summit Daily News reporting on the county’s case data, from May 10-24, the county saw 33 cases, which is an incident rate of 106 per 100,000 people based on the 2019 census estimate of Summit County’s population, 31,011 people.
Vargo mentioned multiple reasons behind the discrepancies. In some instances, the state identified people who live in Park County as Summit County cases. Additionally, some people who initially tested positive in Summit County and were retested in another county were counted as two positive cases. The last names of some of the cases were mixed up, as well, Vargo said, with some people being counted twice because of it.
Vargo and Wineland have met with state officials multiple times this week to discuss a reconsideration of the variance request and bring up the data issues. During a meeting Tuesday, May 26, the state officials recognized the discrepancies in the data, Vargo said.
Another meeting between Wineland, Vargo and state officials Thursday, May 28, went well, Julie Sutor, county communications director, said.
“It was a productive conversation, but we didn’t get any answers (Thursday),” she said.
County officials remain hopeful that the variance will be approved or the state lifts its current ban on short-term rentals. If the state plans to lift the ban, Vargo hopes it will be announced in time to give short-term rental owners a heads up.
“This idea of holding us back and not allowing us to inform our short-term rental owners and operators that (the ban will be lifted) is incredibly frustrating for all of us,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting. “And as (Wineland) said, not the best use of all of our time to be going back and forth with all of this. (It’s) not the best use of the state’s time either.”
As frustrations rise, county officials hope they can have a more productive relationship with the state.
“At a certain point, they have got to let go of the micromanagement of some of this and make more decisions that are common-sense based than what we’re seeing now,” Vargo said.
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