La Plata and Archuleta counties skipped Level Yellow and moved into Level Blue last weekend on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 dial. And while the public health situation has improved, health officials caution now is not the time for people to let their guard down.
CDPHE updated the state’s COVID-19 dial, with the change going into effect Saturday morning, enabling La Plata and Archuleta counties to not only leave Level Orange, but to bypass Level Yellow altogether.
“We’ve seen favorable metrics in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths for the last several weeks,” said Brian Devine, deputy incident commander for COVID-19 at San Juan Basin Public Health.
The state changed the metrics on the COVID dial, allowing for higher incident rates – the number of cases – at each level, but lowered the metrics for the positivity rate, the percentage of positive cases among people who get tested. Redefining the metrics, alongside an improvement in COVID-19 statistics, allowed the counties to skip straight to Level Blue, he said.
For the most part, there’s no change in what the colors on the dial represent for residents and businesses, he said. But the move from Orange to Blue does have two notable changes: Businesses that were operating at 25% capacity will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity and last call for on-premise alcohol sales will move from 10 p.m. to midnight.
The dial limits capacity with an exact number of people in addition to the percentage, with whichever is lower taking effect. The move into Level Blue increases the cap from 50 people (the number of Levels Yellow and Orange) to 175. But Tim Walsworth, executive director of Durango’s Business Improvement District, said this is moot for Durango and surrounding communities as few, if any businesses have that sort of capacity because of spacing restrictions that still exist.
“There’s only a few places that can get to 50%, and I don’t think any can get to that hard cap,” he said.
The change to the state’s dial puts a little more emphasis on testing and on testing continuing to be available, Devine said, but it also allows counties to have a higher burden of disease before moving into new levels of restrictions. The dial also now bases changes on a week’s worth of COVID-19 metrics rather than 14 days, enabling counties to move more quickly between levels.
While this can help counties move into less restrictive levels faster, it can also have the opposite effect.
“Based on our internal math, looking at the case data, La Plata County is pretty much right on the border between Level Blue and Level Yellow. And cases have been going up in the last two or three days,” Devine said. “It would be very easy for La Plata County to go backward into Level Yellow.”
He said residents of La Plata County, especially event planners, should plan as though the county has Level Yellow restrictions, which in addition to 50% capacity, limits events to a maximum of 100 people indoors and 175 people outdoors. (The limits are 175 indoors and 250 outdoors at Level Blue.)
“We’d hate for anyone to have to cancel an event,” he said.
Walsworth said the potential to fall back to Level Yellow is sure to make businesses nervous about yo-yoing or bouncing around between levels. But the 5-Star Certification Program enacted in late December can soften the blow.
“It kind of changes the benefits for those that are certified,” he said. “Instead of getting increased capacities, 5 Star becomes like an insurance program for them. If our numbers reverse, and if we move into a more restrictive phase, then they’ll be able to be open at a higher capacity.”
The extra safety protocols 5-Star businesses have implemented, such as 10-foot spacing instead of 6-foot spacing, also keep their customers and employees as safe as possible, he said.
“The message to the public remains the same as it’s been this whole time,” Walsworth said. “We still need your help with the masking, social distancing, not gathering with people outside your household just yet – all those same things.”
“It’s a little bit human nature to hear that restrictions are easing and so we don’t need to take precautions. ... I don’t want anybody to think that the pandemic is over,” he said.