'Safer at home' phase loosens restrictions

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Just because the statewide "stay at home" order expired on Sunday doesn't mean it's a free-for-all.

That was the message from officials this week as the state transitioned to a less-restrictive "safer at home" order amid efforts to halt spread of the coronavirus, while emphasizing a robust increase in testing.

Gov. Jared Polis' order, which lasts until at least May 27, says Coloradans should stay home as much as possible, and recommends wearing fabric masks in public and maintaining safe social distancing. It also continues to limit groups to 10 or fewer people, meaning activities like church services and other gatherings are still limited.

Polis said Wednesday that his goal is to ramp up testing across the state to provide as many as 10,000 tests per day, and said the state has the capacity to handle this between private and public labs with a one-day turnaround for results. Back in March, the state could only handle 160 tests per day. Locally, Mountain Medical Center clinic staff said a new blood antibody test is available through the clinic to help determine whether patients already had COVID-19 weeks ago.

Mountain Medical has performed only three blood antibody tests – all were negative. Private pay patients can get the tests for less than $200.

As the state allows non-essential businesses to reopen, those businesses are negotiating layers of orders from local authorities - the county health department - and the state.

County authorities lifted public health orders on Friday regarding operations of bars and restaurants and non-essential personal services, as well as another limiting mass gatherings here in the county. However, they cited the state's orders duplicating these orders, which remain in place, as the reason for loosening these county public health orders.

The county's loosening of the public orders doesn't affect the statewide orders issued by the governor.

However, the county kept other local orders in place, extending them until May 15, and these are more restrictive than the statewide public health orders. The county continued restrictions on short-term lodging, limiting bookings to essential workers or stays for longer than 30 days, and kept the 14-day quarantine required for seasonal residents and second homeowners who return to Ouray County. Counties are allowed to adopt more restrictive orders than the state.

The new phase provides guidance for "non-essential" businesses to reopen, including retail operations and offices. As of Friday, retail stores can reopen. On May 4, offices can reopen. Non-emergency medical procedures and dental work can resume after more than a month of closure. The state has also said personal services, including hair salons, can reopen Friday if they choose to do so and comply with specific protocols for sanitation.

Restaurants and bars, as well as gyms, playgrounds, libraries, movie theaters and similar businesses, will remain closed for now. There is a tentative mid-May timeline for revisiting the possible opening of more businesses. The state also specifically issued recommendations for businesses that are reopening - recommending that all workplaces allow for a safe space of 6 feet between employees, cleaning high-touch areas, staggering shifts to reduce the density of employees, and providing protective gear. They also recommended conducting daily temperature checks of employees and logging the results. Polis encouraged businesses to continue to allow as much as 60 or 70 percent of their employees to continue to telecommute.

The state is also encouraging businesses to create special hours for vulnerable individuals; to encourage 6-foot distancing inside businesses for patrons; to encourage customers to use gloves and face coverings; to provide hand sanitizer; and to use contactless payment solutions. Polis encouraged businesses to take other measures such as increasing ventilation, giving cues for safe distancing in the store, such as decals on the floor to indicate distances, or limiting the number of customers allowed in a business at a time. More detailed guidelines are available at coloradosaferathome.com.

"Businesses will only be allowed to open if they are in compliance with Safer at Home requirements, and it is in a business' best interest to ensure the safety of their customers," the governor's press release said. "The state will work with local public health departments on enforcement for these requirements."

Polis also encouraged people to wear masks as they visit businesses that have reopened.

In introducing the new health order, Polis praised Coloradans for following the previous orders and helping to "flatten the curve" of infection. In the beginning, the number of cases was doubling every 1 1/2 days across the state. Those rates have since plateaued, though some counties have seen increases lately, including neighboring Montrose County, which reported it has had 95 confirmed cases and 11 deaths as of Wednesday afternoon.

Polis said the state's modeling shows hospitals can handle the case load now, and that officials expect to continue to see some infection but not something that will overwhelm medical resources, if people continue to take precautions. The new protocol is sustainable for the "medium term," he said, as the virus continues to run its course.

Business owners are negotiating two different layers of regulations - those from the state and, on a local level, from the county. At this time, counties are free to adopt more stringent restrictions, Polis said, which Ouray County has done with its public health orders restricting lodging and requiring a 14-day quarantine for seasonal residents if they return to the area. Counties can also do nothing and let the state orders serve as the requirements for residents, or they can petition the state for an exemption for more flexibility if they have a reduced number of COVID-19 cases. The new order also includes a rule about outdoor recreation - requiring residents to stick within roughly 10 miles of home or within their community. Officials have emphasized the rule is in place to discourage those from metro areas from flooding the mountains and their communities with visitors who might bring infection. Polis also said he's encouraging potential visitors fro m outside Colorado to hold off on visiting at this time.

The frequently asked questions about the order included this statement: "Do not take a 'Colorado vacation' or go to your second home. Limit activities to your immediate community, no more than 10 miles from your home. Do not travel to mountain areas or the Western Slope."

"We're not ready yet," Polis said, noting that while he understands why people want to come enjoy Colorado's outdoor amenities, "It's not ready to open for people visiting from other states."

In a meeting Wednesday afternoon, Ridgway State Park Manager Kirsten Copeland reported the park is experiencing "unprecedented visitation" and said "all of a sudden we are seeing more out-of-state plates." At this time, the campground remains closed and Copeland said they will remain so until at least May 5·

Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood said there's not much law enforcement can do if people report vehicles with license plates from outside of Colorado.

"That 10 miles is a suggestion. It is not an enforceable order," he said. "There are no places where an out-of-state tag would be forbidden to be."