Variance sought as restrictions loosen on churches, playgrounds, other activities
Pool operators are asking Ouray County to pursue a variance to allow more swimmers than a statewide limitation, to make opening more financially viable now that the state is allowing them to reopen.
The state’s most recent version of “Safer at Home and in the Great Outdoors” order, issued Monday, also included provisions for churches to allow in-person services and for other restrictions related to COVID-19 to loosen. The order, which is 45 pages long, also includes detailed guidelines for a variety of other activities to resume, including short-term rentals. One rule that has been in place during various iterations of the state’s orders remains - the 10-person limitation on mass gatherings, with the required 6-foot social distancing between people. Though other orders have allowed activities to resume, including one allowing children’s sports camps to begin with a limit of 25 participants outdoors, the 10-person rule remains in place across Colorado.
Pools will be allowed to reopen this week with a maximum capacity of 50 percent or 50 people, whichever is less.
But that one-size-fits-all limit isn’t a good fit for pools here in Ouray County, argued attorney Marti Whitmore, representing Orvis Hot Springs at a meeting with county commissioners on Tuesday.
“Fifty is not a great number,” she told commissioners in a virtual meeting, adding that she hasn’t seen any data or rational basis for that specific limitation. She also said the unique nature of the pools in Ouray County warranted a closer look at finding a variance that would work for each site.
In a letter to the county health department and the commissioners on Monday, Whitmore referenced the financial hardships endured by businesses with the COVID-related closures and asked commissioners to pursue a request to the state.
Melissa Drake, Ouray’s acting city administrator, echoed the request and said the city can handle more swimmers safely, as 5o swimmers would constitute less than to percent of the Ouray Hot Springs Pool’s capacity.
“We certainly think we can keep the facility clean and safe and we’d like to increase that capacity” she told commissioners.
The city of Ouray tentatively plans to reopen the Hot Springs Pool on June 16, but important details including hours of operation and how many swimmers will be allowed remain to be sorted out.
City Resources Director Rick Noll developed a plan last month to reopen the Hot Springs Pool under an assortment of changes and restrictions aimed at keeping staff and customers safe. The most notable elements of the plan called for opening the soaking pools for two threehour periods and limiting pool capacity to 154 people each day. Noll estimated that’s the number of daily customers needed to generate enough revenue to cover operational expenses and the pool’s debt.
Drake said she doesn’t know exactly what the city will ask for, but they want to move forward with developing a variance request. She said she initially expected the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to issue guidelines on reopening pools today (Thursday). The state initially asked for feedback on some of the new guidelines, with a deadline for that feedback by Wednesday at noon, but then went ahead and issued the new orders on Tuesday.
County officials said they would work with pool owners and operators to draft a variance request, which would need approval from commissioners acting as the board of health before submission. However, it’s unclear exactly what the maximum capacity request will be at this time or how all the pools would be included in the request. Orvis has to different, natural pools, but the city has a different kind of setup, and then some hotels also have their own hot springs for guests or visitors. The request could take weeks for review by state officials — one variance request the county submitted regarding short-term rental operations was never answered, so a timeline is not clear.
Other elements of the plan developed by Noll for the city’s pool called for discouraging pool users from moving between individual pools and encouraging guests to wear their swimsuits to and from the pool to avoid crowding in locker rooms. It remains to be seen how much of Noll’s plan will be implemented once the pool reopens, or if the plan will be modified.
The Hot Springs Pool has been closed since March 16, when then-City Administrator Justin Perry ordered it shuttered due to concerns about coronavirus.
In addition to reopening the Hot Springs Pool, the city plans to reopen Box Canon Falls Visitor Center on Monday. Drake said that date is dependent on the city installing barriers between the cashier and the public and hiring customer service agents to staff the center She said a few employees chose not to return to work due to concerns about COVID-19.
The visitor center will initially be open to a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Drake said the city hopes to expand those hours as conditions allow.
As of today, churches will be allowed to resume in-person worship services with a capacity limit of 5o percent or 5o people, whichever is less. Members of the county’s unified command said earlier this week they had received requests from five different churches to seek a variance to resume in-person services, and they plan to meet with worship leaders Monday to determine whether a variance is still needed with the new state orders.
Unified command leaders are beginning another series of meetings with stakeholders to clarify the new state orders this week and plan on meeting with lodging facilities on Friday, retail businesses on Monday, outdoor recreation businesses and guides today (Thursday) and personal service businesses on Wednesday.