Routt County to draft request expanding gathering limit to 50 people
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In a meeting Wednesday, the Routt County Board of Health directed staff to draft a variance request to expand the local gathering limit to 50 people with mitigation protocols.
Currently, Colorado’s safer-at-home order limits gatherings of more than 10 people due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The request is partially modeled after Eagle County, which received approval in May to allow gatherings of up to 50 people as long as they maintain 6 feet of distance between members of separate households.
In discussions of the variance, Routt County commissioners pointed to the area’s relatively low prevalence of COVID-19 and its expanded testing capabilities. The county currently has just one active case, according the most recent data. In a single week, from May 31 to June 6, health officials were able to administer 414 tests for the virus, allowing symptomatic and asymptomatic people to get tested, according to Routt County Public Health Director Kari Ladrow.
Various industry groups, from hotels to wedding planners, have said the 10-person limit hampers their ability to do business, citing cascading consequences for other industries.
In a letter to the commissioners, Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber, and Jennifer Shea, who chairs the Chamber’s weddings and group events, called the current gathering limit unsustainable for the event business, which includes nonprofits that get income through renting out their spaces. Most event venues in the county have lost nearly all of their business well into August, according to the Chamber’s letter.
“The current limit on gathering size is making it impossible for conferences, weddings and events to operate and costing our community a significant loss in the associated tax revenue. It is also impacting nonprofit organization’s ability to fundraise with events desperately needed to sustain their organization’s health,” the letter states.
In addition to expanding the gathering limit, Stoller and Shea requested the commissioners to draft a variance request that would allow specific events, such as weddings, conferences, nonprofit fundraisers and community events.
After discussion, the commissioners decided they are more concerned about the safety of the event rather than the type of event. They directed staff to come up with specific protocols every event must follow to ensure health guidelines are met. For example, a fundraiser that could not guarantee social distancing among participants likely would not receive approval.
“We are not making distinctions between different groups and different types of activities,” Commissioner Tim Corrigan said. “It’s the group size and it’s how they go about conducting that event that is important.”
Commissioners weighed the idea of requesting larger gatherings than the 50-person limit. Doing so would require the county to maintain a lower threshold of new cases. For example, if the variance request allowed gatherings of up to 175 people indoors, the county would have to keep the number of new COVID-19 cases to fewer than seven new cases in a two-week period.
If case counts rose above this threshold, the county might have to roll back its recovery and could be forced to implement even stricter rules, Commissioner Beth Melton pointed out.
She acknowledged that larger gatherings carry a greater risk of disease transmission. Events like weddings likely would bring more visitors to the area. The more people at an event, the harder it is for officials to conduct contact tracing if someone tests positive for COVID-19.
“It feels like more risk than I would be comfortable with,” Melton said of the larger gathering limit.
As the commissioners explained, other parts of the country have seen recent spikes in the virus. On Friday, Utah reported its largest growth in COVID-19 cases in a single day after 439 people tested positive for the virus.
By limiting gatherings to 50 people, the state’s threshold allows the county to have up to 26 new cases in a period of two weeks before stricter mitigation measures would be required. The commissioners opted for this more gradual approach to the local recovery plan.
Ladrow expects to have the variance request ready for approval by Tuesday. The Routt County Board of Commissioners would then vote to approve, amend or deny the request during its meeting on the same day.
“We recognize this is a significant impact that this entire pandemic has had on (people’s) lives and their businesses.” Ladrow said. “I don’t want that to go unnoticed.”
Toward the end of their meeting, the commissioners addressed requests from some municipalities within the county to exclude themselves from the face mask requirement, which mandates masks to be worn inside public buildings and businesses.
After some discussion, the commissioners decided that it would create enforcement issues and undue confusion if the mandate was not consistent across the county.
“I would be uncomfortable making an exception for different parts of the county,” Corrigan said.
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