Summit County grapples with variance denial as restaurants are given a limited green light statewide
DILLON — Summit County public health officials requested a variance from the state on May 15 to reopen short-term rental establishments, restaurant dine-in services and ski areas. On Sunday, the county was officially notified that ski areas are allowed to open due to the expiration of the state executive order closing the ski areas. However, variance requests to reopen short-term rentals and dine-in restaurant service, still prohibited under the state’s safer-at-home order, were denied.
On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis updated the safer-at-home order to allow all restaurants in the state to reopen on Wednesday, May 27, for limited in-person dining.
“We were really disappointed,” county spokeswoman Julie Sutor said of the variance denials. “We feel like our data is trending in the right direction and we have put together some really great plans in collaboration with the restaurant community and the lodging community. … We’re hopeful that these industries will be able to reopen in the not-too-distant future.”
The county’s submitted variance application detailed the current health conditions in Summit County, pointing out that the county’s COVID-19 positive-case curve has flattened, and described the negative economic and psychological effects the shutdown has caused. Procedures for limited reopening of the two sectors were provided. Other variance requests were approved in nearby mountain communities, including Eagle County, Pitkin County and Routt County.
In the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s letter denying the county’s requests, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of CDPHE, explained the decision, citing “an increasing number of cases and percent positivity of tests” in Summit County. Ryan detailed that Summit County in the past two weeks has had 41 cases of COVID-19 for an incident rate of 132 per 100,000 people, which is above the state rate of 100 per 100,000. Ryan also noted that the county’s testing positivity rate over the past two weeks ranges between 7% to 19%, and that CDPHE would prefer to see this rate consistently under 10%.
“With these recent trends, the department does not believe loosening restrictions around restaurants and short-term lodgings are appropriate today,” Ryan said in the letter. “We will monitor new cases over the next week and reconsider the variance request at that time.”
Ryan added that if restaurant guidelines were loosened by a state order, Summit County would be subject to this order despite the variance denial unless the county chose to be more restrictive than the state.
“We believe opening restaurants at 50% capacity is the right thing to do in Summit County, and we believe it can now be done safely,” Sutor said in a text message after hearing the state’s announcement. “Restaurants represent a substantial part of our economy, and restaurant workers are part of the fabric of our community. So we’re really glad they’ll be able to reopen their doors on Wednesday.”
As for short-term rentals, Sutor explained that the local public health order prohibits short-term lodging of all types until the end of the month. The state does not have a prohibition on hotels and motels, but does have one on short-term rentals. While the local prohibition of short-term lodging will expire on May 31, the state prohibition of short-term rental facilities may remain in place.
The safer-at-home order, which has been extended to June 1, lists hotels as critical businesses but excludes short-term rentals. Sutor said the county lumped all lodging facilities together and prohibited them in the local order due to the nature of Summit County.
“Because we’re such a tourism-driven economy, when we were really working towards the enforcement of that spirit of ‘stay at home’ we didn’t want a lot of visitors coming and going … so we put all of those lodging categories together and had them prohibited through the end of May,” Sutor said.
As Ryan wrote in her letter regarding the variance denial, Summit County’s request to reopen short-term rentals may be reconsidered as CDPHE monitors new cases over the week. Sutor said the county would sync up local health orders with new orders enacted by the state to reopen certain business sectors.
After the state announcement on restaurants, Sutor said the local health order would likely be amended on Tuesday to at least include the allowance of Alpine skiing, as the current health order still requires ski areas to remain closed.
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