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Local officials in dark about next health orders

Will Colorado governor run out clock before issuing new guidelines?
Local health officials say they don’t have clear guidance from the state about what comes next after safer-at-home regulations expire.

Public health officials say they are growing frustrated with Gov. Jared Polis allowing health orders to nearly expire before issuing guidance about the next phase of the state’s coronavirus response.

“We don’t get a heads-up, and we can’t make our decisions until we see his,” said Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for San Juan Basin Public Health. “It’s unfortunate, but we get information when everyone else does most of the time.”

The short notice causes local health departments to scramble in determining whether to follow the state guidelines or issue their own orders, Ninde said. That is what happened in April when Polis moved from the stricter stay-at-home order to the looser safer-at-home order.

Ultimately, SJBPH decided to enact a localized “Safer La Plata” public health order that was a modified version of the state’s, mostly delaying the reopening of some businesses and workplaces by about a week.

As the latest round of public health orders are set to expire next week, the path forward is again unclear, local health officials say.

Polis enacted the safer-at-home regulations April 27, which are set to expire at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday. SJBPH’s Safer La Plata order also expires at 11:59 p.m. Tuesday.

Ninde said local health officials don’t expect guidance from Polis and the state about the plan forward until Tuesday, making it difficult to respond on such short notice.

When asked for comment, a spokesman with the governor’s office responded by providing a timeline of Polis’ expected dates when he will decide on certain reopenings, but provided no guidance about the plan moving forward.

On Monday, Polis is expected to decide whether restaurants, ski resorts and day camps may reopen, leaving local health departments only a day turnaround time to view the proposals. Monday is also a federal holiday.

In an effort to gain greater autonomy, La Plata County may seek a variance from state public health orders for certain industries, such as outdoor recreation companies, outfitters and the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

“Folks have been really asking and adamant that the county try to be a little more responsive to local businesses and find a way to get back up and running,” said Megan Graham, spokeswoman for the county.

Variances must be granted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. La Plata County must first receive approval from SJBPH and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, which remains under a stay-at-home order.

To be granted a variance, communities must prove they have a decreasing caseload of positive coronavirus infections, adequate hospital capacity and the ability to test and contact trace.

Graham said she hopes to have the variance request drafted and sent to local agencies this week. The request would essentially lay out a plan about how to safely reopen those specific industries.

But being granted a variance is hard to achieve. Nearly half of Colorado’s 64 counties have requested a variance, according to a report in The Denver Post, but only a few have been approved.

Montezuma County’s request for a variance to reopen retail stores and gyms at limited capacity was denied. The state health department said it denied the application because of increasing local cases and high infection rates in New Mexico.

Archuleta County said last week it planned to submit a variance request. But Ninde said Thursday no formal request has been submitted to the health department.

Graham said it is possible, depending on Polis’ new round of public health orders, that a variance will not be needed.

“The timing is interesting,” she said. “The state will have new guidance any day now.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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