Colorado reopening to begin; Aurora, Denver, most of metro area delaying until May 8

Colorado Governor Jared Polis puts on his face mask after a news conference to update the state’s efforts to stop the spread of the new coronavirus Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER |  As Colorado prepares to lift its statewide stay-home order, Gov. Jared Polis said Sunday that social distancing measures should likely continue for months to avoid another spike in cases.

In his “Safer at Home” and “New Normal Advisory Board” executive orders issued Sunday evening, Polis said much of the state can begin gradually reopening non-essential retail stores and accommodating “elective” surgeries, medical procedures and appointments.

“Safer at Home is by no means a free-for-all. My administration has acted boldly in the face of this pandemic and is focused on ensuring our state can endure on the trail ahead,” Polis said in a statement. “We all have a personal responsibility to slow the spread of the virus and must find a way of living that is psychologically and economically sustainable for Coloradans.”

Polis said his new plan offers a “more sustainable way of living for Coloradans while slowing the spread of the virus.” Polis said the plan is to balance the need to returns people to work and allowing more Coloradans to return to work. The Executive Order is tentatively set to expire May 26.

The order spells out what will change immediately and what will change in the weeks ahead

April 27: Non-essential retail stores can open for curbside or home delivery. Real estate home showings can resume. Voluntary or elective medical, dental, and veterinary surgeries and procedures can resume “if facilities are following required safety protocols.”

May 1: Non-essential retail businesses and personal services, such as barbers and nail salons, can phase-in a public opening if they are implementing best practices.  The state is defining what those “best practices” are.

May 4: Non-essential business offices can reopen but in-person staffing levels must be no more than 50% of capacity — if best practices are being implemented. Businesses are encouraged to continue to allow employees to telecommuting more, not less. Child care facilities can also expand or reopen if they are following “Safer at Home” requirements.

Polis said the order allows varied communities from across the state to decide which if any of the changes to adopt.

Denver, Aurora and most of the metro area have delayed any changes until at least May 8, continuing business closures and stay-at-home orders.

In addition, local governments can even go further in relaxing state restrictions, but only with the approval of state health officials.

Read Gov. Polis’ executive order here.

Polis last week announced the New Normal Advisory Board, created to advise state officials on “coordinating and harmonizing policies and rules designed to maximize social distancing during the Safer at Home phase.”

During an appearance on CNN, the Democrat defended his decision to allow the order to expire Monday despite high case numbers last week. He said the totals reflect people who were actually infected weeks ago, but only recently confirmed. Overall, he said the state’s “aggressive intervention” has effectively flattened the curve, but people still need to take steps such as keeping physically apart and keep wearing masks to avoid a wave of new cases.

“We’re all worried about a potential for a second spike,” in July or after flu season begins in the fall, he told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “It’s why we have really been really laser-focused … on figuring out how we can endure and sustain these kinds of social distancing measures.”

In Denver, Mayor Michael Hancock has extended the state-home order, saying his city needs more time to expand their testing and tracing capacity.

A “stay-at-home” order to combat spread of COVID-19 will remain in effect in Aurora. The order was continued for Adams and Arapahoe counties until May 8, the Tri County Board of Health decided Friday.

“We believe the extra time will enhance our testing, we’ll begin to get our contact investigation off the ground, and, as I heard at least a couple mayor’s tell me over the last couple hours, enhanced business preparation for safer-at-home provisions,” Dr. John Douglas, Tri County Health executive director, said during a virtual meeting.

Douglas County, which is also under the agency’s jurisdiction, will not.

Douglas County is preparing its own county plan, which Dr. Douglas is reviewing. It’s not clear whether the entire public health board will review that strategy. One board member said the board hadn’t received a copy of the first draft yet.

Dr. Douglas said he talked with elected officials in all three counties and many cities within the region before recommending the extension, and they all replied with differing views.

“…That wasn’t the answer I wanted to hear. I said, Look, guys, we have a dual epidemic. We got virus, we got unemployment. You’re elected leaders, please work with me to help figure out what’s best to do. I’m a public health expert. I’m not an economic expert. Can we coordinate this?” he said in the meeting. “And basically every group I talked to it was ‘We have different views. We would like for you to do this. We think you should do this. More containment, less containment. But ultimately, we need to rely on public health to make that decision.’”

Tri County enacted a stay-at-home order on March 25, before Gov. Jared Polis made a statewide order.

Then, a group of Douglas County Republicans called for Douglas County commissioners to “terminate whatever contract exists between Douglas County and that organization.”

“Unelected bureaucrats should not have the unilateral authority to simply decide to enact policy that would imprison citizens for 18 months and fine them 5,000. This is outrageous and will only lead to less social distancing as people panic buy,” Rep. Patrick Neville, of Highlands Ranch, tweeted.

Dr. Douglas didn’t address those calls from politicians during the board meeting, but rather highlighted that Douglas County has seen fewer numbers of COVID-19 cases.

“With Douglas County, they have pulled together a plan given their substantially lower numbers. We thought the first version of their plan made sense they’ve modified it since then. It’s reasonably close to the safer-at-home outline, with some modification is capacity and public health parameters allow,” he said. “There is some interest, I believe in Douglas County, if they can pull together sufficient information to even ask for a waiver to go down a pathway like Eagle County did and move faster. We’ll be looking at that closely with them.”

The decision angered Mayor Mike Coffman, who said that pointing out area “hot spots” was simply justification for political pressure leveraged by Douglas County Republicans.

“I’ve heard the explanation from the health department that it’s because of the differences in #COVID19 “hot spots,” but I believe a more accurate explanation is the wall of opposition put up by @douglascountyco elected officials,” Coffman said Saturday in tweet.

Prior to the vote, a Tri County spokesman said the department would be working with other regional health agencies to develop more of a regional plan. Denver, Boulder and Jefferson counties have all extended orders as well.

The separation of orders for the counties is a rarity, Dr. Douglas admitted during the meeting.

“Tri County, at least since I’ve been here, has pretty much acted one-for-all and all-for-one and we do things the same across counties. This would explicitly be a difference from that model,” he said.

Dr. Douglas said it’s not expected that the order be renewed after May 8.

Polis said the state is helping with local extension efforts, but some other, rural areas have low rates of infection. He also pointed to Eagle County, home of the well-known Vail ski resorts. It was hit hard by the pandemic, but will begin a slow reopening Monday after case numbers declined.

The governor will also allow offices to reopen with a half-capacity workforce and social distancing starting May 4, though the state is encouraging working from home longer if possible, especially for at-risk employees.

More than 670 people have died of the coronavirus in Colorado, and nearly 13,000 people have been infected. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate flu-like symptoms, but for others, especially older people and those with underlying health conditions, it can be fatal.