Officials Raise Concerns As State Heads Toward Patchwork of Orders

Bicyclist casually crosses Frisco's main street
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A bicyclist casually crosses Frisco’s main street Tuesday afternoon, April 14, 2020.

Updated April 25 at 9:25 a.m.

On Monday, when Colorado’s statewide stay-at-home order officially lifts, Coloradans will wake up to different guidelines depending on where they live. It’s a patchwork approach that’s drawn mixed reactions and could prove to be more challenging to manage than the full shutdown.

Colorado is one of the first states in the country to begin loosening its stay-at-home restrictions as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

“Our success as a state, in keeping our loved ones and ourselves and our families alive and safe, is really about personal responsibility and the choices that Coloradans make,” said Democratic Gov. Jared Polis at a press briefing on Friday. “We can put all the precautions in place in the world and we're gonna work hard to enforce them where we can. But that individual responsibility element is so key.” 

Polis’ words echoed the arguments Republicans and business groups have made as they’ve asked the state for more flexibility to start reopening. The demands have been especially strong from rural parts of Colorado that have seen lower numbers of COVID-19 patients. 

“We live in a free society,” said Republican Senate Minority leader Chris Holbert of Parker. He said he would have preferred the governor to lift the stay-at-home order earlier but doesn’t want to second-guess Polis’ decision. “I'm frustrated with the reality of our situation and I try not to let that frustration extend immediately or automatically to the man who happens to be our governor right now.”

The state has relaxed restrictions early on a county-by-county basis; this week Eagle received permission to open recreational facilities and allow gatherings of less than ten people. And Polis said a waiver for Mesa County would go into effect soon. Custer and Fremont Counties have also requested exemptions.

“County to county, it's important to stay in communication, but it's also important to realize that we've got to do what's important for us and for our residents,” said Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health. And he notes Mesa County’s infection rate has stayed low. “We've not had a single day where we've had more than four cases throughout this entire process. We looked at what Eagle County did and we kind of followed suit.”

But other areas with denser populations and a high number of cases are concerned that loosening restrictions too soon could lead to a new spike in infections and more deaths. Counties are allowed to have rules that are more stringent than the state's.

“The governor's guidance generally to me was very helpful,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. But he added that it wasn’t feasible for Denver to follow Polis’ timeline. Instead, Denver has extended its ‘stay home’ order to May 8. “We needed time to understand what the roll out was going to be. When we think about where we are in terms of testing and contact tracing, we realize we are not anywhere near close to being ready to do this.” 

Elsewhere in the metro area Jefferson and Boulder Counties will also extend their ‘stay at home’ orders until May 8. Adams, Arapahoe and Broomfield will too, although they plan to allow non-essential businesses to open for curbside pick-up starting Monday. Douglas County plans to follow the state.

In a dense region like Denver, it’s important neighboring counties have consistent, or at least similar, guidelines, according to Mark Johnson, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health.

“We think that's better for the public. It's better for the economy, and it's not as confusing,” he said. 

But as counties have waited for more guidance from the state, Johnson said they worry citizens may not understand what this next step really means. 

“We were very concerned after the governor came out with the plan that the message that many people were going to get -- and we actually found that many people had gotten -- was, ‘okay, everything's open now.’” he said. 

Polis has taken pains in recent briefings to warn Colordans that life on Monday will not be anywhere close to normal. Restaurants and bars will still be closed to in-person customers, and most retail will continue to be available only for curbside pick up. He said people must practice social distancing and continue to wear masks.  

“We're also preparing guidance for the general public,” Polis said. “And in fact industries will have a very specific timeline and requirements. But when in doubt, just stay home. I mean, that's the safest thing. We're safer at home.” 

Officials from some of Colorado’s largest counties have complained that the decision to let the statewide order expire felt rushed, and didn’t offer enough clarity. It’s a pivotal moment for the governor as he continues to navigate this crisis. He’s exercised extraordinary powers to try to balance Colorado’s public health emergency and the economic and psychological fallout from a way of life that has all but stopped.  

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder believes tension would be inevitable, regardless of when the state shifted away from the stay-at-home order.  

“We are living in a really confusing time,” Fenberg said. “I think generally we really applaud what Polis has done. He’s been very accessible with his communication style. I think he’s been pretty empathetic. I also think it’s taken a toll on him. This is the last thing you want to be your agenda.”  

Looking ahead, Polis said this next phase will require more enforcement to make sure businesses are complying with their local regulations. County health departments have the ability to close businesses that are violating health orders and operating unsafely. 

On Friday Polis also issued a direct warning to Weld County, which announced it had developed its own "safer at work" policy.  Officials there have sent conflicting messages about whether their framework is more lenient than the state’s or not. 

“What we aren’t going to do is pick winners and losers as to who gets to restart their livelihoods,” said a statement from the Weld county commissioners. “At the end of the day, everyone has freedoms: freedom to stay home, freedom to go out, and freedom to support whatever business they want to support.”

Polis said there would be consequences if Weld County decided to let all businesses fully open without requiring protective measures. 

“They will forego their own eligibility for emergency funds,” Polis said. “Those businesses could lose their license to operate under the state if they're state licensed businesses.”

Polis urged Weld to follow the existing process to request an exemption. “If Weld county wants to do something differently, we encourage that. You should apply for that and we'll work with you to do that.” 

Much of the work to educate the public about what’s now permissible will fall on local communities, who are trying to reiterate that just because some additional businesses will be open next week, it’s not a free-for-all. 

“This has been tough for families and community members while we’ve worked to reduce the spread of the virus,” said Randy Evetts, public health director for the Pueblo department of Public Health and Environment. “As we move forward, there will be more commercial activity permitted but at this time we are not going back to business as usual.”

Pueblo is following the state guidelines, so real estate showings can resume on Monday, and elective medical and dental procedures can run again, with strict precautions. Starting May 4th, offices can reopen with no more than 50 percent of their staff and staggered shifts. 

The county makes it clear that hair and nail salons, dog grooming and tattoo parlors will remain closed until Friday, May 1. No reopening date has been set for gyms, restaurants and bars.

Some counties are pushing businesses to come up with plans for operating safely so it’s easier for the county to approve a reopening when the time comes.  

“It gives us an opportunity to kind of vet their plan versus public health concerns prior to reopening," said Andrew Sandstrom, public information officer for Gunnison County Incident Command. 

Colorado’s patchwork model may give other states something to consider, as they look to begin opening up in the coming weeks. Officials in Colorado and across the nation say the biggest challenge now is how to adjust to a new normal, one in which local economies can start to revive, while minimizing the risk of a second wave of COVID-19 infections.

CPR's Hayley Sanchez and Denverite's David Sachs contributed to this report