From face masks to restaurants: Panel explains rules and protocols under more relaxed COVID-19 restrictions
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include more information on a survey that incorrectly was attributed to the Steamboat Institute. The survey came from group of local residents and business owners, which showed opposition to a county-wide public health order requiring face masks. The Board of Routt County Commissioners conducted their own survey, which showed the majority of respondents are comfortable wearing face masks at local businesses.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Recent changes to local businesses and plans for further easing of restrictions under the COVID-19 pandemic were at the forefront of a virtual panel discussion Wednesday.
The panel featured local government officials, including Steamboat Springs City Council President Jason Lacy, Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton, Routt County Environmental Health Director Scott Cowman and Steamboat Springs Planning Director Rebecca Bessey. The discussion is hosted by Steamboat Pilot & Today in partnership with the city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County.
Understanding public health orders
With both the state and local government handing down rules surrounding the pandemic — rules that have at times differed from each other — some in the community have wondered how to interpret the various public health orders. As Commissioner Melton explained, the state’s public health department contracts with the county’s own health department to perform various functions, from immunizations to child health to emergency responses.
In most cases, any directives from the state supersede local rules, Melton explained. One exception is if the state grants a variance request from the county to relax local restrictions, as commissioners did to allow restaurants to open for in-person dining three days before Gov. Jared Polis signed an order reopening restaurants across Colorado.
Another exception is if the county establishes stricter rules than the state, as has been the case with the public health order that requires people to wear masks in public places and businesses.
Controversy over mask requirement
The mask mandate has been the subject of controversy for hundreds of communities across the country that require them in public businesses, like grocery stores and courthouses. In Routt County, violating the mask requirement could result in up to 18 months in prison or a $5,000 fine, though local law enforcement and the district attorney have said maximum punishments are rarely sought, and the emphasis is on education and compliance.
Prior to the panel, a local group of residents and business owners created a survey about the local mask requirement, which highlighted the maximum punishment and asked people their stance on the health order. Of the 252 respondents, many of whom were customers, employees and others in the network of contributing businesses, 80% did not support the order, according to the survey. Many business owners who responded, 70%, said the face mask mandate has negatively impacted their business.
Jennifer Schubert-Akin, chairman and chief executive officer of the Steamboat Institute, a conservative think tank, argued that masks are not an effective way of stopping the spread of disease. By having stricter guidelines than neighboring counties, she argued the health order was harming the local economy and posing an undue burden on the community.
“The COVID case data simply does not support any contention that Routt County should have stricter guidelines and certainly does not support excessive fines and jail time,” Schubert-Akin said in an email.
The county conducted its own survey, the results of which were released Thursday. Of the 814 respondents, 75.1% said they feel comfortable wearing face masks at local businesses, according to a county news release.
Commissioner Melton defended the public health order, explaining it follows the most recent health guidelines as an effective way to control the spread of the virus. Making masks a requirement at businesses, an order with legal teeth, means people are more likely to comply. That compliance, Melton argued, will help to allow the continued reopening of businesses and mitigate the risk of a resurgence of the virus.
“I believe the more we can control the spread of the virus, the better of a reopening we are going to be able to have,” she said.
If public health experts reach an agreement that masks are no longer an effective control measure, Melton said she would be open to amending or removing the local mandate.
Help for restaurants
With restaurants forced to operate at 50% capacity for in-person dining, the panel discussed what local government is doing to support busines owners.
As the city’s planning director, Bessey explained that rules have been relaxed to allow restaurants to offer more outdoor seating. For example, the city has amended rules prohibiting seating on certain sidewalks to expand the number of customers restaurants can serve. Some parking spaces may now be used for tables and marketing signage.
Cowman oversees all restaurant inspections in the county. He said his department has resumed its operations following weeks of restrictions due to the pandemic. His inspectors will visit businesses in the coming days and weeks to ensure they are in compliance with public health guidelines.
Support and education will be the priorities of these inspections, Cowman said, with an emphasis on seeking compliance rather than punishment.
“We want to ensure to the best of our ability that this is a safe community to visit,” he said.
Continuing the reopening
Looking to the coming months, the panelists urged the public to maintain their compliance with health guidelines, from washing hands frequently to maintaining 6 feet of distance between others.
“We are not out of the woods just yet,” Melton said, adding that health officials expect a return of the virus as restrictions loosen.
While the reopening plan carries the risk of new COVID-19 cases, society must balance public health concerns with economic needs and people’s wellbeing, such as their mental and emotional health, the commissioner explained.
Asked if the county plans to seek additional variances to open businesses and services before the state orders allow, Melton said commissioners are awaiting Polis’ announcements about the next steps of the safer-at-home order. He is expected to ease restrictions surrounding places of worship, personal recreation and the outdoor industry Thursday.
City Council President Jason Lacy said he is excited to see more activity in the community, from people sitting down to a meal at restaurants to hikers enjoying the nearby trails now free of snow.
“It’s nice to see some light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
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