La Plata County will move into the less restrictive Level Orange public health restrictions Monday after Gov. Jared Polis made an unexpected announcement Wednesday night on social media that he is easing COVID-19 regulations across the state.
Polis said counties currently in Level Red will be moved to Level Orange, which allows restaurants to offer indoor dining at 25% capacity and personal gatherings of up to 10 people from two different households.
“In reviewing the data, Colorado has been in a sustained declined for 13 days, and only 73% of (intensive care unit) beds statewide are in use,” Polis wrote in a post to Twitter at nearly 9:30 p.m. the day before New Year’s Eve.
Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said the health department was given no prior notice of Polis’ decision, other than an email from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment a few minutes before the post to Twitter.
Jollon said SJBPH has not been provided information from the state about what Polis’ decision means for the state’s dial and metrics going forward. A request for comment to CDPHE was not immediately returned Thursday afternoon.
La Plata County does not meet the previous criteria to move into Level Orange, she said.
To qualify for Level Orange under the previous metrics, a community’s case rate must be below 350 positive cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day time period, adjusted for population.
At last count, La Plata County’s case rate was 468 positive cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days, adjusted for population.
“It’s almost 50% higher,” said Brian Devine, deputy incident commander of COVID-19 for SJBPH.
La Plata County moved into the Level Red public health order Nov. 20 after a dramatic rise in cases. At its peak, the case rate in the county was above 1,000 positive cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period.
As of Thursday, a total of 2,273 people in the county have tested positive for the virus, with the vast majority of those coming since Halloween.
While the case rate has declined, health officials have been concerned about the impacts of people gathering on Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Polis ordered the move to ease restrictions, despite knowing what those impacts will be.
“We don’t know what the impacts of Christmas are, we don’t know what the impacts of New Year’s might be,” Jollon said.
State health officials have said it takes about 10 days to two weeks before spikes from something like a major holiday show up in the data.
Since the pandemic, cases have spiked after several major holidays, including the Fourth of July, Labor Day weekend and Halloween. Cases did not increase as significantly after Thanksgiving.
“It’s fair to be concerned about the timing,” Devine said of Polis’ decision.
It’s also possible La Plata County’s case rate is not completely accurate, as the testing site has been closed for a couple of a days the past week because of the holidays and during a winter storm. Plus, it is likely people traveled outside the county for the holidays.
“That is potentially part of the story,” Jollon said. “That is probably something that happened all over the state.”
Level Orange allows restaurants to reopen to indoor dining at 25% capacity.
As it stands, restaurants that achieved the 5-Star Certified Business Variance Program will remain at 25% capacity until La Plata County reaches the old metrics to actually qualify for Level Orange. If that happens, those restaurants can increase to 50% capacity.
But Jollon cautioned that the state could change any of these regulations between now and Monday.
“We believe this could be revised before Monday,” she said.
Among the other notable changes, gyms and some offices can have 25% capacity and indoor special events are again allowed at 25% capacity.
Jollon said the public should not take Polis’ decision to downgrade restrictions as a message to let up on best practices aimed at slowing the spread of the virus, such as wearing a mask, social distancing and not having indoor gatherings.
“We still are asking people to follow precautions,” Jollon said.
In a statement provided to The Durango Herald, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of CDPHE, said, “In general, counties restricted in Level Red have reduced viral transmission to a point where we can provide economic relief and move them into Level Orange, recognizing the fact that economic hardships also cause poorer health outcomes.”