GRAND JUNCTION—Mesa County received final approval Wednesday from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for a waiver of the Governor’s COVID-19 restrictions that will allow Mesa County Commissioners and Jeff Kuhr, Mesa County Public Health Director, to oversee policies and practices designed to slow or prevent the spread of the virus while restoring the economy of the county as much as possible.
“We have seen no community transmission, so putting the same strict regulations on our community without a conversation about how this will affect our business community, it’s very difficult for us as local government leaders because we are on the front lines,” said Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese in an interview with Complete Colorado. “We know what our community needs.”
Like many other rural Colorado counties, Mesa County suffered very few infections.
According to the CDPHE as of Monday, Mesa County reported a total of 40 confirmed cases and a case rate of 26.04 per 100,000 people, the lowest rate in Colorado, and zero deaths. Most confirmed cases have now recovered and hospitals are largely empty.
Total deaths in Colorado as of Monday are 706 and the total number of confirmed cases is 13,879 with 2,485 people hospitalized.
“We are really focused obviously on saving lives, but we also want to make sure we’re saving our business community and our economy,” said Pugliese. “We’re especially sensitive to that in Mesa County, on the western side of the state where our economy isn’t as strong as what you’re seeing on the front range.”
Mesa County has already been hard-hit by the collapse of the oil and gas industry caused by Senate bill 19-181, which changed the composition of the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission and imposed severe constraints on oil and gas extraction.
Governor Jared Polis lifted the statewide stay-at-home order effective Monday, but issued yet another executive order restricting businesses and movement by the public. The order against non-essential travel remains in place except for a new restriction on recreation that limits citizens to a 10-mile radius of their homes.
“I was impressed originally when the governor came out and said he was going to leave shelter in place orders to local community leaders to determine if that was what was best for their constituents, but then he came out with a shelter in place order without discussion and made it state-wide without looking at the impact it would have on rural versus urban communities,” Pugliese said. “I do think those orders should be left up to local governments to issue and not a statewide edict.”
Pugliese has backing for that belief in Colorado law. While the Governor has the power to make disaster declarations, the traditional authority over disease outbreaks has long been with county officials, particularly county health departments, who are best situated to know what their residents need.
The structure set up in statutes for pandemic response provides the governor with an advisory commission comprised of experts in all areas, and while his general statutory authority includes the power to restrict movement in a disaster zone, county health officials have express statutory authority to “control persons” within the county.
Mesa County is largely following the Governor’s orders but with some modifications.
One difference in Mesa County’s plan is that rather than limiting restaurants to a fixed number of customers (10 for example), it bases its restrictions on the size of the restaurant and reasonable social distancing standards.
Initial dining room opening will be restricted to 30% of the occupancy authorized by the fire code for the facility.
Other dining room restrictions require operators to:
- Place markings on the floor to maintain at least six feet distance
- Spread people/tables out so there is at least six feet distance between them
- Implement touchless payment methods when possible
- Use physical barriers for high-contact settings (e.g. cashiers)
- Group parties are limited to no more than six people “who have previously been in contact with each other and there is limited risk of disease transmission.”
- No public sharing of utensils or condiments will be allowed.
- Buffets must have an employee serving the food, no self-serving allowed
- Self-serving stations must remain closed (drinking stations, bulk dry, etc.)
While Polis continues to restrict the right of people to travel more than 10 miles from their homes for recreation, Pugliese says the county has resisted the urge to ban all non-residents from the county as Gunnison County did April 3.
“Several of our constituents have reached out and said we need to shut down I-70, we need to close our borders,” Pugliese said. “We have such a low numbers we’re not going to be closing our borders to people. I think it’s important that people have the ability to recreate and do the things that they want to do in our county but also be safe, which means social distance requirements.”
Unlike densely-populated metropolitan areas like Denver, Mesa County, along with most other rural Colorado counties, have vast open spaces where recreation can safely take place with social distancing being measured in miles rather than feet. Pugliese sees no reason why recreation on public lands, with appropriate guidance, should not be permitted.
“We aren’t kicking people with out-of-state license plate out of Mesa County because we’re 72% federal land,” Pugliese said. “All together there’s a lot of open space for people.”