Attendance still limited to 50 at Hot Springs
More than a month after Ouray County asked the state for permission to allow increased capacity at pools, the state health department denied the request.
The decision sunk hopes of allowing more than 50 swimmers at a time at local pools, including the popular Ouray Hot Springs.
answer came to County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery via a phone call on Monday. He said the reason he received was that the application didn’t align with the new “Protect Our Neighbors” phase of reopening, which the state transitioned to as it was inundated with requests for variances.
“It took them almost a month to get to ours and by that time, the framework had changed,” Kingery said.
After that amount of time passed without an answer, Kingery wasn’t surprised to have the proposal rejected. The Plaindealer didn’t receive a response from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment this week prior to deadline.
The county applied for the variance during the previous reopening phase, called “Safer at Home,” which came after the more-restrictive “Stay at Home” orders. The response took so long that the state moved on to the next stage of reopening, which requires individual counties to submit applications for lesser restrictions during the pandemic to allow larger gatherings and other events. Eventually the state was so swamped with variance requests, the governor put a moratorium on them until today.
The county previously asked for permission to up to 75 percent capacity or 175 swimmers at pools, including the Ouray Hot Springs and private pools such as Orvis Hot Springs. The statewide rules currently allow 50 percent capacity or 50 swimmers, whichever is less.
At the Ouray Hot Springs Pool, 50 people is roughly 6 percent of capacity. The news came as a blow to the city, which was holding out hope for a variance, given the low infection rate in the community.
Ouray Mayor Greg Nelson said he was “disappointed” by the state’s ruling.
“The (Hot Springs) pool is important to our community, to our guests, to the financial viability of the city as a whole,” he said.
Nelson said the city needs to learn more from county health officials about the reasons behind the denial and the likelihood of a variance being granted later.
Marti Whitmore, an attorney representing Orvis Hot Springs who petitioned the county on behalf of her client to submit the request, said she was disappointed at the state’s denial. She requested a written reason for the rejection in order to determine next steps.
During a meeting Wednesday with county, city and town officials, Kingery said the state health department advised the county could reapply for 50 percent capacity or 175 swimmers indoors or z5o swimmers outdoors.
Similar variances were previously approved for Douglas, Garfield and Denver counties. The state health department has advised normal cleaning procedures and chlorination are believed to be effective against the spread of COVID-19.
The state’s two-week hold on variance requests ends today unless it’s extended by the governor. Kingery said he was hopeful the county would be successful in for a variance again.
Ouray County has not had any positive cases of COVID-19 identified in the past two weeks, and has had only one death attributed to coronavirus so far. The state issued variances to other communities with pools previously, including counties with higher infection rates.
At this time, Montrose Memorial Hospital has one COVID-positive patient in the intensive care unit, according to information provided Wednesday from Dr. Drew Yeowell. However, in the past four weeks, the number of cases has nearly doubled in Montrose County. Ouray County has not seen the same increase.
The state’s “protect our neighbors” phase requires each county to apply for permission to move onto the next, less-restrictive phase of reopening. This phase which will go in to effect on a community-by-community basis rather than a blanket statewide lifting of restrictions, would allow communities who meet a list of criteria to permit activities at 5o percent of pre-pandemic capacity and no more than 50o people in one setting at a time. Kingery previously said he’s had conversations with regional health directors about moving in that direction but acknowledged Ouray County is nowhere near ready to submit an application. The next phase of reopening is one that requires a complicated application, with everything from proof of contact tracing capabilities to available hospital capacities.
Kingery has been visiting with other health departments in the region to discuss applying for the next reopening phase as a region, with support from neighboring health departments who have more resources.
If a variance for increased pool capacity isn’t approved, it could mean the Ouray City Council has to make difficult decisions. Nelson said the City Council needs to get a better feel for what it’s costing the city to keep the pool open with a 50-person limit at each session. He’s wary of the city spending more money under the current circumstances than it would be if it simply closed the pool.
‘We’ve got to maintain the financial best interest of the city We can’t be driving the community into debt,” he said, noting the city owes roughly s500,000 this year in principal and interest payments on the debt the city incurred as part of the 2017 pool renovation and expansion.
“None of us know how long the coronavirus lifestyle as we know it is going to last, so we have to be very cautious about how we spend city money,” he said.
State authorities have warned that counties disregarding the public health orders risk losing funding.