More than 100 governments and businesses hoped to receive guidance Friday from San Juan Basin Public Health about Southwest Colorado’s move into a “safer-at-home” phase of the coronavirus response, but they must keep waiting – with mounting confusion – until Monday.
SJBPH, which is leading the coronavirus response in Archuleta and La Plata counties, was expected to announce its decision to either follow the state’s safer-at-home policy or to extend stay-at-home restrictions in the region.
The state’s stay-at-home order, which began March 26, ends Sunday. Businesses and municipalities are supposed to act on the safer-at-home order starting Monday, but they say they need clearer guidance from the state or local health officials.
“We have heard from businesses that they want very clear guidance to ensure that they can keep employees and customers healthy,” Liane Jollon, SJBPH executive director, wrote in a message to The Durango Herald.
Jollon said the public health department planned to review new executive and public health orders for best practices and to release more information Monday. Although the department has the authority to extend more stringent restrictions, Jollon did not indicate a choice on the matter.
SJBPH was not immediately available for further comment Friday.
“It would be nice if this area and the local governments were leading, and right now, it’s difficult because there’s a lot of sheep,” said Katie Sickles, Bayfield interim town manager. “For Bayfield, I am willing to follow. I just need to know what I’m following.”
During a Friday conference call, which drew about 100 local stakeholders, someone said: lead, follow or get out of the way, Sickles said. The health department did not respond to the Herald’s request to listen in on the multi-agency phone call.
In a news release Friday night, the health department acknowledged Colorado’s stay-at-home order ends Sunday and SJBPH may need to issue additional public health orders based on yet-to-be-released directives from the governor’s office.
“SJBPH will review the state’s requirements and determine whether they adequately and consistently protect the health of all of us throughout our communities,” the news release said. “These orders may be necessary because large decreases in social distancing will accelerate transmission of COVID-19.”
Coloradans are urged to remain home except when absolutely necessary, even after the stay-at-home order expires, according to SJBPH.
While stopping short of issuing its own order, the health department implied it may delay the transition from a “stay-at-home” order to the a “safer-at-home” period “to allow all businesses enough time to comply with health and safety requirements.”
Colorado’s “safer-at-home” period offers a phased approach to reopening businesses. For example, on Monday, real estate agents can conduct one-on-one tours, not open houses, and retail stores can offer curbside pickup. Then, salons, tattoo shops, personal trainers, dog groomers and other one-on-one personal services can open May 1, with safety restrictions. On May 4, offices can bring back up to 50% of their employees for in-person work.
Bars and restaurants would remain closed to in-person service until mid-May. Nightclubs, gyms and spas will remain closed. Schools are closed for the rest of the school year.
Some Coloradans felt the reopening was premature. The state does not have widespread testing everywhere, and treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19 remain in development. Five Front Range counties chose to extend the more restrictive stay-at-home order, according to The Denver Channel. The Navajo Nation and Southern Ute Indian Tribe also extended their stay-at-home restrictions.
Protests have also swept the nation, as people objected to the loss of liberty and economic impacts of public health restrictions. About 26.5 million Americans have filed for unemployment. In Durango, which boasts more restaurants per capita than anywhere in the United States, businesses are struggling, even declaring bankruptcy.
Local municipalities are waiting for either SJBPH or the governor’s office to take the lead and issue clear directives.
Bayfield is preparing for multiple outcomes amid the confusion about the order. It plans to reopen closed government services but has nixed an idea to open Town Hall for a half day May 5.
In Durango, social-distancing restrictions will remain in effect, said Mitchell Carter, spokesperson for the city. City facilities will remain closed and government meetings will continue to take place virtually as the city awaits clearer guidelines, he said.
“Our staff is taking the steps to prepare to open, but when the state uses verbiage like ‘strict precautions’ and nothing beyond that, we just don’t have enough details to make the right decisions for our community,” Carter said.
Ignacio is also awaiting clarification, said Mark Garcia, interim town manager. In the meantime, Town Hall will remain closed, Town Board meetings will take place virtually and town services will continue as currently offered. The restrictions will be revisited May 4.
“In Ignacio, nothing’s going to change right now,” Garcia said. “We think we’re fulfilling everybody’s needs at this point.”
What about businesses?Under Colorado’s “safer-at-home” period, businesses that are not considered critical or essential may be violating public health orders if they open, heath officials say.
Gov. Jared Polis this week announced he would start easing restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus by allowing some businesses to start reopening in phases.
But the initial messaging from state officials did not have clear guidelines, which has created confusion about which businesses can and cannot open, and what health and safety precautions owners must follow.
Brian Devine, environmental health director for SJBPH, said business owners need to make sure they are in compliance.
“There has been a lot of confusion,” Devine said. “So we’re trying to share information as widely as possible.”
The health department has contacted local business groups and individual store owners, as well as communicated through social media and other channels to spread the word about the changes coming Monday.
But still, it’s likely some business owners who should not open, will open, Devine said. And in those cases, the health department or law enforcement will do its best to contact owners to get them into compliance.
“We know people want to provide safe conditions and it’s not deliberate,” Devine said of businesses reopening that are not allowed. “So whether it’s law enforcement or us, they will receive that education on how to comply.”
As was the case during the shutdown, business owners will first be given a warning and the chance to comply. If stores violate the public health order a second time, a citation could be written.
Polis, during a news conference Friday, acknowledged the state’s orders have been on short notice.
He said the only changes in the state’s orders for Monday is that retail businesses can offer curbside pickup and real estate agencies can hold limited showings.
Also Monday, the state will provide detailed guidelines about how businesses can open more fully on two targeted dates: May 1 and May 4. Polis also acknowledge that local jurisdictions have the authority to set their own time frames and restrictions. SJBPH has so far sidestepped using its authority to issue restrictions beyond what the state has done.
“I recognize there are different situations on the ground across the state,” Polis said. “Some may want to go slower, some may want to go faster (with reopening).”