Routt County prepares to increase restrictions as COVID-19 cases hit new highs
New public health order in the works could reduce social gatherings to single household, drop office capacities and limit all indoor events
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Routt County Board of Commissioners is primed to modify the local public health order, increasing some restrictions on residents in an attempt to control the spread of the virus that has reached new highs locally before state officials swoop in and make a more drastic move.
The proposed changes from Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith would limit personal gatherings to those of just one household, drop capacities in offices to 10% and not allow indoor events to take place regardless of capacity.
“The main goal is reducing the prevalence of COVID-19 in our community,” Smith said. “My second goal is I want to see kids in schools.”
Commissioners expressed a desire to make the changes suggested, but a new public health order had not yet been drafted. Commissioner Tim Corrigan suggested the board should revisit a new public health order Monday, allowing enough time to properly draft a new order while not dragging their feet on adding new measures to curb the rapidly spreading virus.
“We are seeing our highest incidence rate to date,” said Nicole Harty, Routt County epidemiologist, adding that she has had to increase the thresholds on graphs she puts together because there have been so many new cases. “Routt County Public Health, largely me, was notified of 50 cases on Friday alone.”
There were 169 cases in the past week and 313 cases in the past two weeks, both the highest they have ever been. The test positivity rate, nearly 9%, is the highest it’s been since the early days of the pandemic when there was limited testing.
Harty said this is not a fluke, as they are doing some of the most testing they have ever done. The largest contributor to cases is known contacts, including social gatherings and cases associated with an outbreak at a business, Harty said.
“Our community continues to gather with friends and family from multiple other households, and it is not just 20- to 29-year-olds, it is also community members in their 50s and 60s,” Harty said.
Harty said this hurts local businesses because they often are forced to close to mitigate the spread of the virus among their own employees, even though the spread didn’t start there.
Case investigations show there are many in the community that are not making the right choices to lessen the spread of the disease, Harty said.
“There are these multiple gatherings that I have mentioned in which members of three or four or five households have gathered at bars, restaurants or someone’s home for an extended period of time, and then many, if not all, end up testing positive,” Harty said. “Those individuals then go to work after that gathering, not knowing they have been exposed and not knowing they are exposing their coworkers.”
Harty said social gatherings are the main driver behind the 12 outbreak investigations in restaurants and businesses they are currently investigating. Harty added that outbreaks in businesses and restaurants are not necessarily due to problems in those places, rather social gatherings are bringing the virus into these environments.
“We want to celebrate life events and milestones or simply see our friends, but the fact is gathering with friends and family is very risky right now,” Harty said.
Routt County’s case incidence is now slightly below that of Pitkin County, which chose to move to level red on Jan. 17. Since making that move, cases have declined in Pitkin from highs of over 550 cases in two weeks to under 200 cases in the most recent two weeks, according to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 dashboard Wednesday.
There has been discussion of moving Routt County to level red, and some residents have sent a letter to commissioners asking for just that, but adding new elements to the public health order now is meant to avoid needing to move to level red.
“I do think we need to add some strategies to our public health orders because just communicating and asking just has not proven to be successful,” Smith said.
While technically in level orange of the state’s dial framework, cases in Routt County are well into metrics for level red. Smith suggested the county adopt some of the level red restrictions. Because personal gatherings are leading to so much transmission of the virus, Smith said she wanted to limit those gatherings to people of one household.
Non-critical office capacity would be limited to just 10% compared to the 25% currently allowed, but Smith strongly suggested anyone who can work from home should be.
Smith also suggested limiting all indoor events, of which she didn’t feel there were many. Where there may be some problem is when it comes to high school sports, which are allowing limited spectators at games.
Public health officials also expressed a desire to require businesses keep a log of customers they see, something that has been required previously. The new order may also include language limiting the amount of time a customer is in a business but how specific that language might be isn’t clear.
“I don’t know how to write that in a way that is enforceable and reasonable for a business,” Harty said.
She said from case investigations, they know people have stayed at a restaurant for the duration of a football game, something she said people should not do. Still, the length of time that is appropriate could swing wildly depending on the size of group and type of restaurant.
“I would really look to our restaurant community to help us understand how would we structure this,” Harty said. “Having some way to enforce that would be a good thing I think, sort of not letting people linger and loiter beyond the duration of a meal.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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Twenty months after the South Routt School District announced it would close because of a burgeoning coronavirus, COVID-19 is more prevalent in South Routt than ever before.