Monday, April 19

Colorado’s county-level COVID restrictions a result of politics, not just data, officials say

Colorado’s COVID-19 restriction dial is designed to be data-driven and binary. If a county crosses certain thresholds that indicate worsening spread of the coronavirus, tougher restrictions follow via an order from the state.

But data and interviews with county health officials and political leaders throughout Colorado reveal that the dial system turns out to be highly fungible, delivering citizens and businesses a patchwork of regulations informed partly by data and partly by politics.

A person can run errands in two counties with roughly similar virus metrics and expect different levels of protection because of differences in relationships between the state and local officials in those counties. The rules are different not only for retailers but for other businesses, schools and private gatherings.

The state recently revised its COVID dial to create a new, not-quite-stay-at-home level of restrictions — the new Level Red. Level Purple was added to the top of the dial. Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment on Tuesday named 15 counties that are moving to red Friday: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Clear Creek, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, La Plata, Logan, Mesa, Morgan, Routt, Summit and Washington.

Five more were added late Thursday: Alamosa, Otero, Prowers, Pueblo and Weld. Those counties reach Level Red on Sunday.

That means they must suspend in-person dining and heavily restrict capacity inside offices and gyms, among a slew of other requirements.

The revision of the dial to create Level Red was itself indication of the elasticity of the rules: If the state had strictly followed the dial in recent weeks, many counties would already be under stay-at-home orders. By revising the dial, the state protected counties from a full lockdown.

Ray Beck, a county commissioner in Moffat County in northwest Colorado, said that hours before those 15 counties were named, his commission spoke with the staff of Gov. Jared Polis. He described it as a positive, collaborative interaction.

“The governor’s office was encouraging us to go to red,” he said. “I asked if we could go to orange (the level below red) instead, because red pretty much shuts us down. They said, ‘Yeah, that’s an option.’”

Moffat borders Routt County, and the state’s COVID dial site shows that the two are at roughly equal levels on the three indicators the dial relies upon: incidence of new COVID cases, percentage of positive results over 14 days and hospitalization rate over 14 days.

Routt’s moving up to red, and Moffat isn’t.

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