Colorado's top public-health official has agreed to allow the immediate limited re-opening of indoor operations at restaurants across Douglas County as well as houses of worship, gyms and the Park Meadows mall under various conditions.
The approval came in a two-page letter the night of Friday, May 22, from Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, to the Board of Douglas County Commissioners.
The letter was in response to a request to the CDPHE by commissioners for a waiver from state requirements imposed during the coronavirus crisis that would allow the facilities to re-open.
The request also included materials from the Tri-County Health Department, Lone Tree Mayor Jacqueline Miller and Park Meadows executives.
In her letter, Ryan said the waiver "is limited to the operations of the Park Meadows Mall, ... restaurants, houses of worship, and gyms; in all other respects, the requirements of the Safer at Home Executive Order and Public Health Order remain in effect for Douglas County."
Along with her variance, Ryan set various limits on occupancy. She said confined indoor spaces must be restricted to 50% of their posted occupancy-code limit not to exceed 175 people at a time and allowing for at least 28 square feet of space per person.
County officials in seeking the variance had proposed that restaurants would require employees to wear masks, while patrons would wear masks until seated. Restaurants also would encourage diners to make advance reservations and wait outside until their table is ready. And seating would be limited to 10 per table for families and six for mixed groups.
At houses of worship, masks would be required under the county proposal, although congregants could remove them once inside if they are farther than 6 feet from anyone else.
As for Park Meadows, Ryan's letter stated: "It is critical that the indoor common areas be well-managed at all times such that no gatherings are occurring and instead customers are moving from one destination to the next, and admitted into each confined indoor retail space as permitted based on 50% occupancy of that confined indoor space."
On May 24, Park Meadows welcomed patrons into its corridors for the first time in two months, and about 30 stores re-opened.
Mall executives and local officials had been pushing to re-open the interior corridors of the mall to allow shoppers to access stores that lack outdoor entrances for in-person shopping. Some of the mall's anchor tenants and other stores had previously re-opened on a limited basis.
In their request for a variance, county officials had submitted a lengthy plan for maintaining safety at Park Meadows, including a requirement for face coverings for all employees as well as customers over age 2, social distancing and no seating in the food hall, placing markings 6 feet apart to space out customers in line, and extensive cleaning and disinfectant procedures.
Douglas County is among about 20 counties statewide that have been granted a variance from state COVID-19 rules, 9News reports.
Eagle, Larimer and Teller counties also received variances in recent days covering restaurants and various other businesses while imposing conditions of operation. Teller County -- home of the mountain gambling community of Cripple Creek -- did not receive permission it had sought to re-open casinos and bars, the Denver Post reports.
The Douglas County variance will remain in effect until statewide restrictions are lifted, barring a new surge in cases in the county. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on May 25 announced relaxed rules for restaurants across the state to take effect May 27.
"The data and information included in your request demonstrates that the Tri-County Health Department ... has a strong public health surveillance system, sufficient hospital capacity, and appropriate thresholds for rolling back the variance if conditions worsen," Ryan said in her letter. Tri-County oversees public health matters in Douglas County.
She noted that the county had a COVID-19 disease incidence rate of 22 per 100,000 people over the last two weeks.
Ryan said in her letter that the waiver will be "automatically rescinded" if Douglas County sees a spike in new COVID-19 cases or hospitalizations.
She said any two of these factors in Douglas County could trigger rescinding the order:
She said her agency "reserves the right to modify or rescind this variance approval as circumstances warrant."
Ryan's letter to commissioners concluded: "I appreciate your thoughtful approach to these challenging issues, and wish you all the best inyour continuing efforts to ensure that residents are safe and healthy as we deal with this global pandemic. Douglas County is a valued partner ..."
“On behalf of our board I wish to express our thanks to all involved in the preparation and review of these documents including our business community, Tri-County Health Department, our hospitals and the CDPHE," commission Chair Roger Partridge said in a statement to Colorado Community Media.
"We are especially grateful to the citizens of Douglas County for adhering to the behaviors that led to the favorable public health data that supported this outcome,” Partridge said.
In addition to the county variance request, leaders of Douglas County's two largest cities had urged Polis to expedite the re-opening of restricted businesses.
The town of Castle Rock sent a letter to Polis on May 19 urging the state to reopen restaurants and gyms.
Multiple councilmembers said during a town council meeting that day that businesses are struggling, and that they believe it’s possible to begin safely reopening the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
And on May 18, Parker Mayor Mike Waid sent a letter to Polis, requesting an expedited process allowing all business to reopen.
Waid signed the letter on behalf of the Town of Parker and the town council, stating he believes it is “economically viable and operationally stable” to allow all restaurants and gyms to open with safety protocols in place.
On May 21, Parker Town Administrator Michelle Kivela issued an emergency order allowing restaurants and bars to temporarily expand their outdoor seating areas to serve more customers while adhering to social distancing guidelines.
Reporters Jessica Gibbs and Nick Puckett contributed.
Correction: Jill Hunsaker Ryan's letter to Douglas County officials was dated May 22. An earlier version of this story gave the wrong date.
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