As some businesses begin contemplating how they'll reopen April 27
while complying with certain restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, some but not all El Paso County and Colorado Springs local government workers will return to their workplace.
Mayor John Suthers says in a phone interview he won't push for all employees to get back in their offices. "Our message to them and their bosses is, if you're working from home and it's working out well, continue to work from home," Suthers says. "What we're envisioning is bringing in 20 percent ... and phasing people in. For several weeks anyone who can will work at home. Over half of our employees are sworn, so they haven't worked from home to begin with."
Speaking of which, not a single city worker has tested positive for COVID-19.
But as everyone pushes toward opening for businesses, the numbers keep rising. Data released April 21, representing numbers through April 20, the state had 10,447 cases, an increase from 10,106 the day before. Hospitalizations rose to 2,003 from 1,880 the previous day, while deaths increased from 449 to 486.
El Paso County saw cases rise slightly, from 734 to 744, and three more died, totaling 53 deaths so far.
But Suthers noted El Paso County currently has a low number coronavirus hospitalizations, 35, which is 2 percent of the statewide total while the county represents 12.5 of the state's population.
Suthers predicted local governments won't impose stricter rules than Gov. Jared Polis, who's said non-essential retail businesses can reopen for curbside and phase-in opening next week, as long as they use social distancing and masks. Restaurants and bars will remain closed with takeout and delivery service continuing; they could reopen in mid-May if a new crop of COVID-19 patients doesn't pop up. Schools will remain closed, but personal services, such as salons, tattoo parlors and animal groomers, will be able to open with strict precautions beginning April 27.
Suthers anticipates the city will follow Polis' recommendation to reopen its offices May 4 with up to 50 percent of personnel.
"I think we've done a pretty good job," Suthers said of local citizens complying with stay-home orders, "and I really applaud the governor in being cautious and I think it's appropriate to move on to Phase 2." Phase 2 is the gradual reopening.
"Phase 2, in my opinion, is going to take more self-discipline and more voluntary compliance than did Phase 1," he adds. "It's easier to stay home when there's no place to go other than grocery stories and hardware stores. Now, with retail opening, it's going to put more of a burden on businesses to focus on social distancing by putting markings on the floor, have employees wearing masks, and encouraging everyone coming in to stores to wear masks."
But Suthers cautioned that those over 60 or who have underlying health conditions should remain home whenever possible, because they comprise the highest risk group for contracting the disease. Also, nursing homes and assisted care facilities will remain in virtual quarantine, he said.
"Fifty percent of [El Paso County's] deaths are people over 80," he says.
Suthers himself falls into the "over-60" crowd but he hasn't been staying home. "I can't manage all the things I need to manage from home," he says, noting that he goes from one remote meeting to another throughout the day. But he washes his hands often and wears a mask unless he's speaking.
Suthers says he's felt a bit like Bill Murray in the movie "Groundhog Day," because every day when the alarm sounds, he gets the death and hospitalization report on COVID-19 and starts another cycle of meetings.
The number of people who get sick after April 27 will determine whether the state will move to Phase 3, which is to open restaurants with reduced capacity, possibly increasing the number who can gather to more than 10, and returning to church services — all in early to mid-May.
Courtesy City of Colorado Springs
Mayor John Suthers at a news briefing recently.
Should there be an outbreak, Suthers says, it would be up to El Paso County Public Health and the state to enlist testing and contact tracing to control COVID-19's spread.
As for the city's finances, Suthers says he's already cut $20 million by imposing a hiring freeze and postponing some capital projects.
"It's going to be deeper than that," he says, noting that hotel occupancy numbers in March were among the worst ever locally. April's will be worse yet, and the April sales tax revenue report will be "abysmal," he predicts.
Although Suthers said he's willing to spend up to $10 million from the city's $32-million reserve fund to plug budget holes, "I would predict across-the-board pay decreases will be the first stage. If that doesn't become enough, we could make that more or we could do furloughs at Christmas time."
That's why Suthers signed on to an effort by a variety of organizations, including the National League of Cities, to lobby Congress to "immediately provide robust, flexible relief" to state, tribal and local governments to feed them money to make up for revenue shortfalls. "I've talked to most of the Colorado delegation, and I think they support it," he said.
Previous relief packages have not address falling local government revenues.
But Suthers warned the state and nation aren't out of the woods yet.
"There's been a lot of good news but we can't take our foot off the pedal," he said. "We need voluntary compliance by businesses and customers alike."
At the county, Board of E Paso County Commissioners Chair Mark Waller said by phone he's waiting "to see what the governor is actually going to do on [April 26], what he's going to allow."
Commission Chair Mark Waller
He said each elected official, such as Clerk and Recorder Chuck Broerman, must decide who needs to return to work and who can work from home.
"We anticipate getting a lot of people back in our buildings, but not 100 percent," he said.
The county won't make a call on restoring courthouse staff until the state judicial system rules whether jury trials and other court hearings and procedures will resume.
Asked who will take what actions on people who violate the Phase 2 orders, he said, "I wish I had a great answer for you on that and I don't. Public Health isn't going to engage in active enforcement. The hope is people abide by the rules. People are smart enough to do what they need to do to be safe. The vast majority of the population is going to comply."
For information about current and future rules, contact the region's call center at 719-575-8888. To report noncompliance, call El Paso County Health at 719-578-3167
Courtesy Coroner's Office
Dr. Leon Kelly: cautiously optimistic.
Dr. Leon Kelly, El Paso County coroner who's working with the Public Health team during the pandemic, echoed Suthers' hopes.
"At the end of the day, it's entirely dependent in people buying into this," he said of Phase 2. "As people go out, it's going to be hard to be sure people stay just as diligent as they were before. If we don't and hospitalizations go up, what happens is we go back to stay at home. We're trusting our citizens to do what we're asking them to do. This is not just a one way rocketship. If we don't succeed, we will know relatively quickly."
One thing has dramatically changed since March, however.
Today, there are multiple testing sites and ample supplies locally, Kelly reports.
"That's where we've made the most progress in the last week," he said. "I think we are finally in a place where all our testing is locally supported. We have the ability to test anybody who's symptomatic who wants to be tested, and that's the first time that's been true from the beginning."
In other news:
• Territory Days, held during Memorial Day weekend, has been canceled this year.
• In compliance with Polis' order, Colorado Springs School District 11 will finish the school year through distance learning. It will announce soon how to close out the school year by returning materials and picking up personal belongings.
• Top Air Force officials got a briefing from the North American Aerospace Defense Command
and Northern Command on April 18 while here for the Air Force Academy graduation.
• The 4th Judicial District issued a statement noting domestic violence is on the rise amid the pandemic's stay-home orders. For help, call TESSA's safe line at 719-633-3819 or the hotline number at 719-633-1462.
• More than 10,000 Coloradans so far have signed up for a health insurance plan through Connect for Health Colorado’s emergency Special Enrollment period
, which ends Thursday, April 30. The Marketplace opened the Special Enrollment period March 20 in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. Uninsured residents have nine days left to enroll for coverage that begins on May 1.
• Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris donated a million FDA-approved ASTM Level 1 Procedure Face Masks to health care workers and first responders. In Colorado Springs, Penrose Hospital and UCHealth will receive 6,000 face masks.
• Attorney General Phil Weiser joined a coalition of 22 attorneys general and the City of New York to demand the administration suspend action on a federal rule that could cut food assistance for more than 30,000 Coloradans a month, 11,000 of whom are children and 7,300 of whom are seniors over the age of 60. "During this challenging time, when so many are out of work, it is unconscionable to take away something as vital as access to food,” Weiser said in a release.
• The Colorado Department of Human Services' Office of Behavioral Health has received a $2 million grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to shore up behavioral health crisis services during the pandemic.
• The FEMA-sponsored COVID-19 testing site in El Paso County is expanding to Pueblo County starting April 22. With additional testing resources becoming available in El Paso County, the FEMA testing site will greatly expand local testing capability and disease surveillance in Pueblo County.
• Check the print edition of tomorrow's Indy
or head to csindy.com for a feature story about how officials responded to the discovery the state's and county's first COVID victim unknowingly infected a bridge club.