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Montezuma County is drafting a plan to reopen nonessential businesses while continuing prevention measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
A Colorado stay-at-home order that closed nonessential businesses is set to expire April 26, said Gov. Jared Polis, and guidelines are being drawn up to allow some businesses to reopen with restrictions.
County and health officials, local towns and chambers discussed strategies and presented information about the topic during a YouTube video conference meeting Monday.
“We are formulating a plan so we can be ready to go to reopen if allowed to,” said county Commissioner Larry Don Suckla.
Details depend on how state health orders are adjusted, the severity of the COVID-19 in the county, and whether residents and businesses comply with restrictions.
Striking a balance of restarting the economy while protecting residents is the ultimate goal, said county Administrator Shak Powers.
County health department physician Dr. Kent Aikin said, “Efforts need to continue to limit the spread, protect our frontline workers and our most vulnerable. And avoid overwhelming our health care system.”
In a news conference Monday, Polis said new guidelines will be released this week. However, restaurants and bars will be limited to to-go orders and deliveries. Those restrictions are expected to remain into May depending on the disease’s progression, Polis said.
Criteria for businesses to reopenMore widespread reopenings depend on key criteria, county and health officials said.
First, the county would gain access to rapid testing to better evaluate COVID-19’s prevalence.Second, contact-tracing investigations would increase, helping to isolate potentially infected people. Third, new cases would decline over two to three weeks under a wide-reaching, rapid testing system.Local leaders cautioned about reopening businesses too soon and triggering a surge of infections, which could cause additional harm.
Colorado has more than 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, but based on modeling, the number could be over 70,000 statewide, according to state health officials. Officials worry that people with asymptomatic illness are spreading COVID-19 unknowingly.
As of Monday, Montezuma County confirmed 13 cases of COVID-19, two deaths and 11 recoveries. Seven tests from the drive-thru clinic are pending.
The first case was confirmed March 28. The highest spike was three cases April 2, but no confirmed cases have been reported since April 11.
Some statewide restrictions may not be necessary if the county can show prevention efforts have contained the outbreak, Powers said.
“If the state procedures do not make sense for our area, we should be ready to appeal and ask for exemptions with guidance from our health department,” he said, adding that county input is needed in state decisions that affect the local economy.
Regulations for a business to operateThe reopening strategy involves prevention measures for staff and customers.
Limiting the number of people allowed in a business.Barring customers or staff with COVID-19 symptoms.Ensuring space for enforced 6 feet of social distancing.Ensuring everyone wears masks.Providing hand-sanitizing stations at the door and cash register.Maintaining business cleanliness.Hanging posters at entrances to explain procedures. For the system to work, businesses and residents would comply with all preventive measures. Law enforcement officers may be required to visit businesses, officials said.
Rapid testing could reveal additional casesSouthwest Health System, which manages Southwest Memorial, awaits delivery of rapid testing equipment, which likely would reveal unnoticed cases of COVID-19 in the county, said Bobbie Lock, director of the Montezuma County Health Department.
Rapid testing would increase the need for contact-tracing efforts. Currently, six to eight nurses, including Lock, conduct tracing investigations, but that number could rise to 14.
“The sooner we can find positive cases, the sooner we can prevent the spread,” Lock said.
Rapid testing would allow targeted testing of health care workers, first responders and nursing homes and senior centers, Aikin said.
Assuming staff members stay healthy, Southwest Memorial can handle 40 to 45 COVID-19 patients who require hospital care, he said, but it would strain staff. Staff have treated one COVID-19 patient, and no hospital staff member has tested positive.
Governments need to be ready to back away from easing restrictions if there is a surge of local cases, Aikin said.
County offices prepare to openCounty offices plan to reopen with tight restrictions beginning April 27, Powers said.
Offices have installed protective shielding and allowed for 6 feet between employers and customers. Everyone is required to wear a mask, and sanitizing stations will be available. Still, business by phone, videoconferencing and email are preferred.
Local chambers of commerce have encouraged business owners to devise a plan to reopen, said Dolores Chamber Director Susan Lisak.
They should have a protocol for reopening.
“Employers should also have practice runs before opening and have employee training on the guidelines,” Lisak said.
Polis on Monday credited preventive measures under the stay-at-home order for avoiding a spike in cases that could overwhelm health care facilities.
Keeping up those practices remains critical, Polis said.
Relaxing preventive measures too quickly, risks losing gains made, said Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek and Ute Mountain Ute Chairman Manuel Heart.
“We need to look at saving lives,” Heart said. “This is the calm before the storm. Cases are growing on the Navajo Nation and neighboring states, and if businesses reopen here, they will be coming this way and impact people here.”