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Reeling Southeast Colorado counties get green light to reopen

Over the weekend, the proposal submitted by the counties of Otero, Bent and Crowley asking for variance from Colorado’s Safer At Home guidelines for reopening was approved by state officials, and the plan went into effect early Monday morning. 

The variance, which was reviewed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, implements a sweeping reduction of restrictions for local businesses and places of gathering. 

The variance allows for the limited reopening of bars, houses of worship, fitness facilities, dance studios, auctions, motorsport race tracks and movie theaters, so long as establishments in those categories follow certain social-distancing procedures. A full description of those procedures can be found on the Otero County Public Health Department’s website.

The proposal, which was submitted on May 19th, is one of the latest in a flood of appeals received by Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment in relation to Safer At Home guidelines. According to the CDPHE, 48 counties have applied for variances since the Safer At Home health order was issued in late April, and several have applied for second variances as state public health orders have been updated.

The variances have sought to balance health and safety concerns with stagnated local economies that have struggled since Colorado went on lockdown in mid-March. However, the difference for counties like Otero, Bent and Crowley is primarily in population size and case counts. Upon submission of their variance, Bent County had no cases of COVID-19, and according to the CDPHE’s website has had only two cases since then.

“It’s all a matter of one size not fitting all,” says Richard Ritter, the director of Otero County’s Public Health Department, which also manages Crowley County. “The Governor and the state health department say that if [a county] is experiencing low case rates and has the hospital capacity to meet needs if things blow up, they can submit a variance to open up sooner.”

Several prerequisites from the CDPHE go along with a county’s application for variance, mostly concerning epidemiological research that should take place before implementing any variance. For example, data demonstrating a decline in new daily cases must be included in any county’s application to the state, alongside information on hospital capacities, strategies for outbreak containment and plans for impact assessment once the variance is in place.

According to Omer Tamir, the director of Bent County’s Public Health Department, the proposal was submitted as a tri-county variance plan mainly because of the shared resources between Otero, Bent and Crowley. For example, the Arkansas Valley Regional Medical Center covers all three counties, and despite its location in La Junta, Bent County’s lack of a major hospital makes the AVRMC the only medical facility available to its residents. 

“The impact [of COVID-19] to us has not nearly been the same as it’s been in the cities,” says Tamir. “Here, almost everything was already essential, so of course we worry about our small business owners, our community center, and the houses of worship.”

He also adds that a major influence in the decision to apply for a variance was the public “itching to get things opened up,” but that the counties prioritized heeding the necessary epidemiological research in doing so. 

Even before the plan was approved, the variance was always set to take effect on June 1st. One reason for this prolonged effective date was Ritter wanted to minimize any risk of increased infections once the variance was implemented.

“One of the critical junctures in all this is transitioning between a more-strict phase and a less-strict phase,” Ritter said. “I wanted to let two incubation periods [for the virus] go to see what the effect is… before we implement anything.”

Incubation periods for COVID-19 typically extend from 2-14 days, so Ritter says the proposal was deliberately timed and included data about how case counts had been impacted by the move from Stay At Home to Safer At Home.

Now that the variance has been implemented, it remains to be seen how another transition to less-strict guidelines for reopening might affect the infection rates of Otero, Bent and Crowley Counties. According to the CDPHE, variances can be rescinded if a county’s case counts reach a certain rate, but both Rick Ritter and Omer Tamir have expressed cautionary optimism in the plan they laid out.

“The guidance from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is very clear,” Ritter wrote in an official update. “If our three counties exceed a combined amount of 30 cases in one week (excluding inmates), this variance is automatically rescinded and we will move backward. Let’s all help to keep each other safe and to keep our local businesses open, it’s up to us. Take it seriously, because it is.”


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