With COVID cases plateauing, one Colorado county wants to lift all restrictions

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DENVER — The Custer County Board of Health has decided to lift all COVID-19 restrictions that the state has imposed, saying its numbers are low enough to do so safely.

The county, which is just southwest of Pueblo, encompasses about 5,000 residents.

The county had seen a spike in cases after the Thanksgiving holiday in early December and moved to Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial for a short time. With tight restrictions, the county was able to bring the numbers back down.

Now, Dr. Clifford Brown, who has been serving as the director of public health for the area since August, said the area is at a 0% positivity rate.

“We have no hospitalizations. We had one death that was confirmed COVID-related back in the first week, or first two weeks anyway, of December and nothing since then,” Brown said.

Vaccination rates in the area are also climbing up. Roughly 1,700 people have received at least one dose of the vaccine in the area, according to Brown.

Because of this, he recommended to the board that it was safe to lift the mandatory restrictions on the state, cautioning that if the numbers rise again, the county will reinstitute restrictions.

“It is soon, but is it too soon when we need to give reward to the people for doing well and notifying everybody that if we need to we will change? All we’re trying to do is give award and give encouragement to continue on doing what they have been doing for months and have been doing very well,” Brown said.

The way he sees it, loosening mandatory restrictions doesn’t mean everything will return to normal. During a Wednesday meeting, the county board said they still expect people to follow health recommendations, but they trust residents to do so without mandates.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) see things differently.

“Custer County does not have the authority to lift its own restrictions. We expect all counties to abide by all executive and public health orders. Counties are able to enact stricter guidance/protocols, but must meet the state’s minimum requirements,” CDPHE said in a statement.

The CDPHE went on to say that while Executive Order D 2021-047 allows for counties to no longer be subject to the public health orders if they move off the state’s dial entirely due to low transmission rates, that move must be done in consultation with the state.

Public Health Order 20-36 goes on to say counties cannot self-determine that they are no longer required to follow state mandates.

“We have not authorized any counties to move off of the dial,” the statement said. “We are contacting Custer County to remind them of the current executive and public health orders that remain in place statewide.”

In an interview with Denver7 Friday, Gov. Jared Polis said while he is monitoring the actions states like Texas are taking to loosen COVID-19 restrictions, he doesn’t want Colorado to become an experiment for whether the numbers will go up if restrictions are loosened. Instead, his office is also reaching out to Custer County to talk about their decision to ignore state mandates.

“The direction we’re going and have been going for some time has been empowering local health departments and local commissioners to really strike that appropriate balance. We’re not fully there yet as a state — there is still a statewide mask order, but it’s really a question of when and not if,” Polis said.

For now, with the number of coronavirus variants on the rise, Polis said he does not think now is the right time for local governments to start taking their own approaches to the pandemic.

While Custer County moves forward with its plans, at the State Capitol, Republicans are continuing to push for more local control during health emergencies going forward.

In the House Public and Behavioral Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony for two bills Friday to strip some of the state’s power.

HB21-1036 specified that state health orders will take effect unless the local governing authority rejects it by a majority vote. The bill also allows those local authorities to modify health orders issued by the state.

“It’s top-down-dictated, ‘this is how you will do this,’ and, ‘we’re going to approve these,’ and I think there is pushback because it violates the principle of representative government,” said Rep. Andres Pico, a Colorado Springs Republican and bill co-sponsor. “It’s a little bit of overreaching on a local level. We’d like to have a little bit more of that saying that influence over how this is done.”

A second bill would allow local authorities to pass rules to repeal any state disaster emergency orders issued by the governor that last longer than 30 days. It also prohibits the state from taking actions against the locality, such as denying funding, as a result of the repeal.

However, during Friday’s committee hearing, both bills were voted down along party lines.

It’s not the first time Republicans have unsuccessfully tried to curb the governor’s authority during the pandemic. Republicans introduced some bills to give more local control during declared disasters in the special session in November but were also unsuccessful.

Democrats said COVID-19 affects the state as whole and needs to be approached holistically.

“The only way that we’re going to get through this is if we have a united front against this pandemic,” said Rep. Iman Jodeh, D-Aurora. “We need to have a balanced approach, and while I realize that every county, every city, every neighborhood has a different reality, when it comes to COVID we are, in fact, all in this together.”

At least one other bill that aims to limit state authority is still awaiting its first committee hearing. However, with Democrats in control of the legislature, the chances of it passing are unlikely.

For now, it will be up to the governor and his team to decide when to hand COVID-19 decisions back over to cities and counties across the state.