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La Plata County seeks variance for outdoor recreation businesses, others

Local officials hope to reopen rafting, gyms, churches and Durango train
La Plata County is seeking a variance that would reopen outdoor recreation businesses and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

La Plata County should have a draft finalized Wednesday of a variance request from state public health orders that seeks to reopen outdoor recreation companies, gyms, churches and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce, said details were still being hashed out, but the goal is to have those sectors meet public health requirements to safely reopen.

“A lot of it is making sure businesses can follow health safety procedures,” he said.

Gov. Jared Polis in March shut down nonessential businesses in response to the coronavirus pandemic, but over the past few weeks, those regulations have been eased as the economy kicks back up.

On Wednesday, for instance, restaurants will be able to again offer dine-in services.

Still, a number of business sectors remain closed and have not been given guidance about how to reopen. A spokesman with the governor’s office said after June 1, the state will reevaluate what industries may be phased in.

“The governor will make these decisions on a rolling basis, based on the latest data and evidence,” the spokesman said.

One way to open businesses on a timeline faster than the state’s is to request a variance. According to state data, 29 of Colorado’s 64 counties have requested and received a variance.

La Plata County’s variance would target outdoor recreation businesses, such as rafting and outfitters.

Alex Mickel, owner of Mild to Wild Rafting & Jeep Tours, said protocols to protect staff and customers from coronavirus would include robust disinfecting, a questionnaire about symptoms and taking temperatures of guides.

Trip sizes would also be reduced. Families, for instance, could all go on one raft. But trips with people from different groups would be limited to four guests and one guide. Shuttles would also be less crowded.

“It’s not ideal for long-term sustainability,” Mickel said. “But it gets things started and gets us back on the river.”

Kevin Martin, head of marketing and sales for American Heritage Railways, which owns the D&SNG, said the main issue for the railroad is adhering to social-distancing guidelines on trips.

American Heritage Railways General Manager John Harper said previously the railroad can’t cover costs if it runs below 75% capacity. The D&SNG, one of the region’s main tourist attractions, has been closed since March.

“Social distancing is the No. 1 issue we’re working through,” Martin said. “And we don’t have those details yet, unfortunately. Like any other industry right now, there are still a lot of unknowns.”

Llewellyn said the variance request would also look for ways to reopen gyms, churches and other gathering places, such as the Bar D Chuckwagon. And, it could reopen retail stores still closed, like the Durango Mall.

La Plata County’s variance request must first receive the support of San Juan Basin Public Health, as well as the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

Then, it must be approved at the state level by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Llewellyn said the earliest the request may reach the state could be Friday or Monday.

While at first it looked like counties were having a difficult time receiving a variance, it appears the state is approving the requests at a higher frequency.

Last weekend, CDPHE approved variances for four Colorado counties, The Denver Post reported, which included reopening indoor malls, bowling alleys, churches, gyms and movie theaters.


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