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Colorado’s county-level COVID restrictions a result of politics, not just data, officials say — today


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Colorado’s COVID-19 restric­tion dial is designed to be data-dri­ven and bina­ry. If a coun­ty cross­es cer­tain thresh­olds that indi­cate wors­en­ing spread of the coro­n­avirus, tougher restric­tions fol­low via an order from the state.

But data and inter­views with coun­ty health offi­cials and polit­i­cal lead­ers through­out Col­orado reveal that the dial sys­tem turns out to be high­ly nego­tiable, deliv­er­ing cit­i­zens and busi­ness­es a patch­work of reg­u­la­tions informed part­ly by data and part­ly by pol­i­tics.

A per­son can run errands in two coun­ties with rough­ly sim­i­lar virus met­rics and expect dif­fer­ent lev­els of pro­tec­tion because of dif­fer­ences in rela­tion­ships between the state and local offi­cials in those coun­ties. The rules are dif­fer­ent not only for retail­ers but for oth­er busi­ness­es, schools and pri­vate gath­er­ings.

The state recent­ly revised its COVID dial to cre­ate a new, not-quite-stay-at-home lev­el of restric­tions — the new Lev­el Red. Lev­el Pur­ple was added to the top of the dial. Colorado’s Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health and Envi­ron­ment on Tues­day named 15 coun­ties that are mov­ing to red Fri­day: Adams, Ara­pa­hoe, Boul­der, Broom­field, Clear Creek, Den­ver, Dou­glas, Jef­fer­son, La Pla­ta, Logan, Mesa, Mor­gan, Routt, Sum­mit and Wash­ing­ton.

Five more were added late Thurs­day: Alam­osa, Otero, Prow­ers, Pueblo and Weld. Those coun­ties reach Lev­el Red on Sun­day.

That means they must sus­pend in-per­son din­ing and heav­i­ly restrict capac­i­ty inside offices and gyms, among a slew of oth­er require­ments.

The revi­sion of the dial to cre­ate Lev­el Red was itself indi­ca­tion of the elas­tic­i­ty of the rules: If the state had strict­ly fol­lowed the dial in recent weeks, many coun­ties would already be under stay-at-home orders. By revis­ing the dial, the state pro­tect­ed coun­ties from a full lock­down.

Ray Beck, a coun­ty com­mis­sion­er in Mof­fat Coun­ty in north­west Col­orado, said that hours before those 15 coun­ties were named, his com­mis­sion spoke with the staff of Gov. Jared Polis. He described it as a pos­i­tive, col­lab­o­ra­tive inter­ac­tion.

“The governor’s office was encour­ag­ing us to go to red,” he said. “I asked if we could go to orange (the lev­el below red) instead, because red pret­ty much shuts us down. They said, ‘Yeah, that’s an option.’”

Mof­fat bor­ders Routt Coun­ty, and the state’s COVID dial site shows that the two are at rough­ly equal lev­els on the three indi­ca­tors the dial relies upon: inci­dence of new COVID cas­es, per­cent­age of pos­i­tive results over 14 days and hos­pi­tal­iza­tion rate over 14 days.

Routt’s mov­ing up to red, and Mof­fat isn’t.

Said Routt Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er Beth Melton, “I don’t think there’s much about this pan­dem­ic response that hasn’t been influ­enced by pol­i­tics in some way.

“My expe­ri­ence and the con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with the state are that they believe — and I think under­stand, right­ful­ly so — that if there’s a sit­u­a­tion where local elect­ed offi­cials dis­agree with what they have done, that puts them in a sit­u­a­tion where the mea­sures tak­en are not going to be as effec­tive,” she said.

“I can appre­ci­ate their efforts to have these deci­sions to be col­lab­o­ra­tive with the coun­ties,” Melton said, but added, “a piece­meal or patch­work kind of approach to this is unlike­ly to be effec­tive, and I think it’s crit­i­cal that the state move those con­ver­sa­tions for­ward as quick­ly as they can.”

Last week, the Gree­ley Tri­bune detailed a call between state offi­cials includ­ing Polis and Weld Coun­ty com­mis­sion­ers. If the direc­tor of the Col­orado Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health & Envi­ron­ment direct­ed Weld to move up the dial, one com­mis­sion­er report­ed­ly said after the call, “Tell her no.”

Weld Coun­ty was not among the first 15 coun­ties mov­ing to Lev­el Red, even though it’s in the red zone on two of the three dial indi­ca­tors. Boul­der, Broom­field, Clear Creek, La Pla­ta, Logan, Routt and Sum­mit coun­ties were in the first group despite hav­ing just one red indi­ca­tor each.

It’s not coin­ci­den­tal that Boul­der Coun­ty, unlike Weld, has wel­comed the tougher restric­tions, said Chana Gous­setis, spokes­woman for Boul­der Coun­ty Pub­lic Health.

“I don’t know if there are rea­sons why, but from what I’ve heard, it sounds polit­i­cal,” she said. “It’s very frus­trat­ing for us at a local lev­el for things to not be applied equal­ly. When we have some­one in anoth­er coun­ty say­ing, ‘Well, I don’t have to do it, it’s real­ly, real­ly dif­fi­cult for us.”

The upshot of a patch­work approach, Gous­setis added, “is increased trans­mis­sion, of course.”

“We’re very con­cerned about neigh­bor­ing coun­ties not hav­ing the same rules. It doesn’t work if we don’t all do it,” she said.

The Col­orado Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health & Environment’s com­mu­ni­ca­tion office did not grant The Den­ver Post an inter­view for this sto­ry. But in an email state­ment, it indi­cat­ed move­ment on the dial can be sub­ject to nego­ti­a­tion, not just data.

“We are still in talks with sev­er­al coun­ties regard­ing where they fall on the dial,” the email stat­ed.

Polis has not addressed the dis­crep­an­cies in how the dial is applied. What use is the dial if the state doesn’t enforce it con­sis­tent­ly, The Den­ver Post asked him in an inter­view last week. He did not direct­ly answer the ques­tion, instead dis­cussing var­i­ous pre­cau­tions he hopes cit­i­zens take to pro­tect them­selves and oth­ers.

Pueblo Coun­ty was not among the 15 named Tues­day, but it was one of the coun­ties the state was “in talks” with. The coun­ty was one of two in Col­orado — Adams being the oth­er — that was in the red zone in all three indi­ca­tors on the dial as of Thurs­day.

Asked why Pueblo wasn’t includ­ed on the ini­tial list, Sarah Joseph, spokes­woman for the coun­ty health depart­ment, said, “I don’t think we under­stand. I was talk­ing to some of my col­leagues, oth­er com­mu­ni­ca­tors through­out Pueblo Coun­ty, and we were try­ing to under­stand how this works.”

Again, it seems no coin­ci­dence that Adams moved up the dial first even though Pueblo’s num­bers were sim­i­lar­ly high. The Den­ver metro area coun­ties have most­ly been more wel­com­ing of a tougher approach.

“For us, it is clear: We need more restric­tions,” said Adams Coun­ty Com­mis­sion­er Emma Pin­ter. “We’re red on all three met­rics, and I’m get­ting con­stant calls from nurs­es, folks that work in hos­pi­tals, that things are ten­u­ous at best.”

Elis­a­beth Lawrence, a Sum­mit Coun­ty com­mis­sion­er, not­ed that her coun­ty ear­li­er this fall went above and beyond the restric­tions the state imposed, lim­it­ing gath­er­ings to six peo­ple while the state’s rec­om­mend­ed num­ber was still at 10. Though she believes bold action is need­ed now to pro­tect the econ­o­my and pub­lic health, she said it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad thing for the dial to have some flex­i­bil­i­ty to it, par­tic­u­lar­ly to accom­mo­date coun­ties that have their own, tough reg­u­la­tions in place.

Den­ver May­or Michael Han­cock went as far last week as to call the dial — pre-revi­sion — “archa­ic” and not reflec­tive of all that the state and its coun­ties have learned and improved upon since the pan­dem­ic began.

But Han­cock said he’s also con­vinced that stricter rules are need­ed now in Den­ver, and he joined Polis for a press con­fer­ence announc­ing the new Lev­el Red.

Though there are many offi­cials who share Hancock’s gen­er­al mind­set on dial flex­i­bil­i­ty, there remains sig­nif­i­cant con­cern about just how flex­i­ble it seems to have got­ten.

“The data is there, and that can­not be argued with,” Lawrence said. “But I believe some coun­ties are inter­est­ed in fight­ing against that.”

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