Routt County adopts new health order aimed at reversing the local trend of rising COVID-19 cases
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County Board of Commissioners passed a new public health order Monday, hoping to stave off more COVID-19 cases that could require even harsher restrictions locally.
The new order, which will be in effect until March 1 unless commissioners change it before then, requires restaurants to take additional mitigation measures, lowers capacity limits in offices and limits any social gatherings to just one residence.
It also includes language that requires short-term rentals to be limited to people from just one residence, potentially affecting reservations currently on the books for some businesses.
The new order is in response to the most severe surge in cases the county has ever seen, a spike seen in several other resort communities in the state, but one that bucks the trend in Front Range communities where cases have been declining.
Declining cases have pushed state leaders to revisit the state’s dial framework, with proposed changes increasing the case thresholds for each of the color levels on the dial. Titled Dial 2.0, the new metrics would put Routt County within level orange.
Most counties with destination resorts are seeing high case counts, but testing doesn’t necessarily point to visitors being the cause of increased disease prevalence. But health officials said visitors are much more likely not to pursue testing, often because it can prevent them from traveling home.
Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said state mobility data shared at a meeting with public health officials in mountain resort communities over the weekend shows people are lingering in restaurants longer in resort towns than the rest of the state.
Updates to the dial outlined by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also include a change from using 14-day incidence rates to 7-day incidence rates as a metric on the dial. This was done to make it more reactive to trends and allow counties to move on the dial quicker.
The county has been operating at level orange restriction for several weeks despite having case counts within metrics for the previous level red. Cases have dipped slightly from the record two-week case count reported last week, but it has only been a handful of days, and the decline has not been sustained enough to call it a trend, Smith said.
Changes to the dial would put the county in case count metrics for level yellow, but test positivity is at 8.3%, within the new level orange metrics.
“We are starting to decline, but that is only a couple days worth of data that we have, so it is true. Are we going to continue on that trend?” Smith asked. “It does take us awhile to look at that, and all the reports coming in to make sure that is a true picture of what is going on in our community.”
But as state leaders loosen restrictions, county public health officials recommend the opposite and think the new order will help prevent more serious measures — like closing restaurants for indoor dining — being put in place.
Under the new order, restaurants are required to maintain a log of the names and phone numbers of guests to aid in contact tracing in the event of an outbreak, reviving a practice used over the summer when the county had variances for restaurants. It also requires people to wear a mask at all times while in a restaurant except when actively eating and drinking.
“That is the opportunity where folks sit and stay for a longer period of time compared to a retail store where people are going in, shopping, getting their goods and leaving,” said Erick Knaus, Routt County attorney.
While discussing the new order last week, commissioners expressed a desire to limit how long people can stay at a restaurant, but there was no clear way to do this in an order in a fair way for different types of restaurants. Instead, restaurants are encouraged to address this in their own mitigation plans.
Capacity limits in non-critical offices also will drop to 10% in the new order, down from 25% normally allowed at level orange. Public health officials also advised that anyone who can work from home should do so.
Social and personal gatherings of any kind are limited to people of just one residence, including at restaurants and in lodging.
“Without taking addresses, I don’t see any possible way to enforce that,” Commissioner Tim Redmond said. “It just seems like we are in a bit of a quandary there.”
The ability to enforce gathering requirements is limited, as it has been with the previous public health orders, but commissioners said they are hoping that because it is the rule, people will abide by it.
“We’re kind of relying on establishments to ask that question knowing that the reality is that people could not tell the truth and get around it, but also going on the assumption that most people are going to try to be in compliance,” said Scott Cowman, the county’s environmental health director.
Commissioner Beth Melton said the county relies on people following the the public health orders voluntarily.
“It should be communicated to the restaurants that the expectation is not some kind of militaristic environment, but that they are making a good faith effort to do this,” Melton said.
Commissioners nixed a prior idea to include new restrictions on indoor events in favor of other means to control capacities. Putting a new restriction on events could potentially further limit attendance at high school sports, which are allowed by variances from state health officials — something the commissioners did not want to do.
Other indoor events, which are not suspected to be a major driver of spread of the virus, are already required to submit mitigation plans under the health order, allowing county officials to review preventative measures taken prior to the event.
“As we see these downward trends in the rest of the state, my view of it is that we should go ahead and adopt this public health order,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said just before commissioners unanimously approved the order. “Yeah, it is hard. It is tightening the screws on everybody here, but my hope is that a couple of weeks from now, we see a definite change in these trends, potentially because of these public health orders.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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