After weeks of strategic executive orders from Gov. Jared Polis to limit the spread of the coronavirus, health officials in Southwest Colorado are concerned about the mixed messaging on reopening some businesses next week.
“There is danger if the order’s not well-understood,” said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health. “Businesses need the opportunity to prepare … and we’re going to run some risks with poorly understood or chaotic next steps.”
Polis this week announced he would ease restrictions with a “safer-at-home” period in an attempt to restart the economy after his stay-at-home order in late March limited nonessential operations.
But residents, businesses and government agencies were unclear Thursday what “safer at home” would look like, because most social-distancing guidelines will remain in place, and not all businesses will reopen. Local municipalities and La Plata County government have not yet announced any dates for opening buildings and public amenities that have been closed for more than a month.
“I probably should have done a better job explaining what it looked like,” Polis said Wednesday during a news conference. “This is not about reopening or not reopening. It’s about how you have a sustainable way of life for a period of time, for weeks and months.”
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for additional comment Thursday.
On Monday, retailers may open for curbside delivery; elective medical and dental procedures can restart; and real estate agents can hold showings but not open houses.
Also Monday, the governor’s office is expected to release more information about the next phase of reopening, expected May 1 and May 4.
But local health officials say that may not be enough time for businesses to adapt to new requirements. Some of the new guidelines may call for businesses to install air ventilators or acquire fitted masks, which are in short supply.
“We’re concerned the timeline is compressed,” said Brian Devine, environmental health director for SJBPH. “Some businesses are already planning a reopening, and they might find the requirements are not feasible to be met by that day.”
For the first time, many business owners might have to think about infection control in the workplace, Devine said. Will stores be ready to change gloves after every customer or take employees’ temperatures?
“From the vague guidelines we’ve seen so far, I imagine we’ll have a lot of businesses read those requirements and find they need additional time to comply,” he said.
Amid the confusion of the phased reopening, there’s a risk businesses would reopen without safety precautions in place, which could cause an increase of the virus spreading, Jollon said.
“The most important thing is we position our businesses to not spread infection,” she said. “So we’re hoping to have that guidance in time to help businesses be successful, and this is a very difficult timeline.”
Taking matters locallyLocal jurisdictions have the authority create more stringent restrictions or different timelines that would supersede state orders, and that’s an option SJBPH is exploring based on what information is released Monday, Jollon said.
The local health department is the only entity with the authority to enact public health orders.
Social distancing has shown signs of slowing the spread of the coronavirus, but after nearly a month of a statewide shutdown, pressure has mounted to reopen the economy and return to work.
Social distancing also has harmed the education system, exacerbated mental health issues and increased domestic violence, Jollon said.
“We’re caught between terrible options,” she said. “We know social distancing is not something that is achievable forever.”
Colorado School of Public Health studies have shown Southwest Colorado’s social-distancing measures have resulted in a 70% to 80% reduction in the spread of coronavirus, which has allowed the health care system to better manage a response to the pandemic.
In easing restrictions, Polis has said if the reduction rate hovered at 65%, hospitals would not be overwhelmed, and people could return to work.
Devine, however, said it’s a bit of a guessing game when trying to decide what level of restrictions will result in what reduction rate.
“There has to be time so you can see how accurate you’ve been,” he said. “So we might have to tighten restrictions again if we have to appropriately control the disease.”
Tools to test?A critical role in reopening businesses is the ability to test for the coronavirus, which allows health officials to see what populations are being impacted, what the transmission rate is and whether the trajectory is going up or down.
Southwest Colorado has relatively solid testing capabilities, Jollon said.
Local hospitals are testing patients with severe symptoms, as well as health care workers and first responders. And the local lab Cedar Diagnostics is offering unlimited widespread community testing.
But Jollon said many people in La Plata County cross county and state lines to get to work, and vice versa, so public safety relies on other areas to track the outbreak, too.
“We have a lot of those pieces (to test) built here,” she said. “But if neighboring communities don’t, we’re still running the risk of having widespread outbreaks across Southwest Colorado.”
Ready to clock in?While public sentiment in Southwest Colorado appears to favor getting back to work, the threat of the virus has created a mixed bag whether stores will open their doors.
Julia Fisher with Three Treasures Health Care, which offers services such as acupuncture and herbal medicine, said she hesitates to resume in-office care.
“I’m worried that we are not at the end of this in our community, but at the beginning,” she said.
LeeAnn Craig, owner of Healthy Hounds and Fat Cats, said the store has been able to maintain its retail, day care and boarding operations, but was closed its grooming offerings under the statewide shutdown.
But she said the store is booking grooming sessions for Monday morning, though the store will limit the number of people inside, and staff will wear masks and increase the use of disinfectants.
“I’m hoping it holds,” Craig said of the state order. “We have a huge waiting list.”
Cathy Wakeman, owner of Animas Trading Co., said the downtown boutique shop will offer curbside delivery next week, giving customers a virtual tour of items for sale through Facebook Live or Skype.
“I guess we have to adapt to the new normal,” she said. “Though I’m not sure what that’s going to look like yet.”
Susan Patzer, owner of Hair Fusion, said she plans to open May 4. The store has been remodeling and will increase space between customers. She said the hair salon will operate at about half-capacity.
“Everyone here will wear masks, and we’ll ask our clients to wear masks, too,” she said.
Trevor Bird, owner of Durango Harley-Davidson, said the retail side of the store will offer curbside pickup. Some employees are excited to get back to work, he said, while others have expressed hesitation.
“We’ve taken it case-by-case with each employee,” he said. “We’ve tried to be extremely respectful.”