Pueblo County Seeks Approval For Coronavirus Variances Based On Mesa County’s Model

December 1, 2020
Jennifer Castellon manages a coronavirus testing site at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo. She said she's seen a recent spike in people getting testing for COVID-19 amid growing coronavirus numbers in the city.Jennifer Castellon manages a coronavirus testing site at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo. She said she's seen a recent spike in people getting testing for COVID-19 amid growing coronavirus numbers in the city.Dan Boyce/CPR News
Jennifer Castellon manages a coronavirus testing site at the Colorado State Fairgrounds in Pueblo. Nov. 5, 2020

Pueblo County is developing a plan aimed at easing economic pressure on businesses that have had to close or reduce capacity under coronavirus restrictions.

In a resolution approved unanimously Tuesday morning, county officials would work in concert with the City of Pueblo and the Pueblo Department of Public Health and Environment on the plan. The variance protection program would be modeled after one currently in operation in Mesa County, and could be submitted to the state for approval as early as Wednesday morning.

"It's a tough balance, trying to figure out what we need to do to control this virus but at the same time not crush the economy," County Commissioner Terry Hart said. "What we're trying desperately to do is to find out where the virus is spreading and where it is not, and not have a one-size-fits-all kind of a rule."

According to the resolution, the board of commissioners supports efforts from the state health department, but said that restricting businesses that adhere to protocols where there is no evidence of transmission, "does not further the goal of restricting growth of virus transmission in Pueblo County."

The county has seen its known positive cases of COVID-19 skyrocket since October, and the city instituted a curfew at the end of October that has been extended through the end of the year.

At the time the curfew was originally issued, the 14-day positivity rate among those tested in the county had risen to 5.7 percent. As of the last day of November, the state health department listed Pueblo County's two-week average positivity rate at 15.6 percent. The generally accepted threshold is 5 percent.

Under current restrictions in Pueblo County and throughout many counties in the state, indoor dining and bars are closed, gyms are limited to 10 percent of capacity with a maximum of 10 people per room, and places of worship are limited to 25 percent capacity indoors, with a maximum of 50 people.

Mesa County is currently under those same restrictions, but its 5-Star program, which was put in place under less restrictive rules, remains in place.

Larimer and Douglas counties had previously petitioned the state to enact similar programs. Instead of issuing approval, the state health department has released a plan to potentially take the program statewide and is now asking for public comment.

Officials in other counties, like Garfield, have said they're not interested in the program.

Still, in a Tuesday address, Gov. Jared Polis said there's been a lot of interest.

"The whole state is … watching the success of Mesa County with regard to the five-star program," Polis said.

Both the City of Pueblo and Pueblo County have put forth funding for economic relief grants for small businesses. The city's fund is driven by an existing half-cent sales tax. In the county, it's funding from the CARES Act.

But according to the resolution and one of support from Pueblo City Council, that's often only a band-aid for those at risk of permanently shutting down.

"As you can see from what folks have applied for and what we have to award, unfortunately, not everyone is going to receive the amount they requested, even if justified," said Garrison Ortiz, Pueblo County Commission Board Chair. "There's a lot of need out there, and we're doing the very best that we can to meet that, including applying for [additional $6 million from the state] … We're doing the best we can with the financial resources that we have at this time."

Pueblo City Council voted unanimously to support the effort. County commissioners also expect support in submitting the request to the state from the regional chambers of commerce.

CPR's Stina Sieg contributed to this report.

You care!

You are one of the KRCC readers who wants to know what is really going on in Southern Colorado these days. We have got just the thing for people like you: the KRCC Weekly Digest. Sign up here and we will see you in your email inbox soon!