Ahead of the curve? Local business owners looking for a variance from public health orders

By Chris Mannara
Staff Writer

A group of local business owners is looking to local governments to apply for a variance from the state’s Safer at Home orders.

According to agenda documentation for the Pagosa Springs Town Council meeting that took place on Wednesday, May 13, businesses that are not yet open due to public health orders — including but not limited to restaurants, gyms, pools, spas, campgrounds and RV parks — are requesting that they be able to open.

Agenda documentation explains that counties can apply for a variance with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for an alternative plan.

Both Eagle County and Mesa County have applied for similar variances and have been approved, agenda documentation notes.

Archuleta County must be the applicant, and the variance request must include an alternative suppression plan for COVID-19 that is endorsed by San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) and adopted by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners (BoCC).

Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC) must also verify that it has the capacity to serve those needing its care, according to council agenda documentation.

One of those business owners requesting to be able to open, Jason Cox of Riff Raff Brewing Company, explained in an interview on Tuesday that this petition came about as the pandemic in Archuleta County began to unfold.

“We were trying to get our head around, OK, what does it look like and when do we reopen our own business?” he said. “When does the hospitality sector come back in Pagosa Springs, and how does it open?”

For example, Cox explained if his business were allowed to open tomorrow, he would not be ready.

“Not just so I can get my orders in to my purveyors or that I can ensure that my place is clean, so we’re meeting the new requirements of the PPE [personal protective equipment] and social distancing,” he said. “It’s more of, OK, when this does come about, are we prepared and do we have a plan in place?”

This process has given these small business owners guidance to what other businesses that are reopened are currently doing in regard to health and safety practices, Cox noted.

“We know that there is masking required of employees, for example. We anticipate that’s what will be required of restaurant employees. In fact, it’s required right now for takeout,” he said. “We’re looking at all of those kinds of rules and trying to understand.”

Part of seeing if the variance would make sense for the county involved engaging PSMC to see if it would have the capacity to handle its normal caseload as well as a possible surge, Cox explained.

According to Cox, PSMC indicated that it could support it with the right type of precautions put into place.

“We know we’re going to get visitors this summer,” he said. “We started looking at the possibilities of how to set about a set of rules that would allow us to reopen different industry sectors.”

A suppression plan has been created for businesses that are looking to reopen, he explained.

That plan includes a list of things that those particular businesses need to have in place in order to open, but they would also have to self-certify with SJBPH that they understand and are implementing these various safety criteria, he added.

“That’s essentially the basis for an audit and enforcement policy,” he said. “We’re pulling together a plan and a model for Archuleta County which did not exist before thus far.”

This variance could allow the county to get ahead of the state in regard to reopening of businesses, Cox explained.

“Really, what we’re trying to do in all of these cases is continue to flatten the curve and to ensure that we’re protecting public health and staff health as much as possible while also being able to reopen the economy,” he said. “That’s not set in stone at this point. We may not even get through our process before the state makes a decision, but we’re exploring that opportunity.”

Another reason behind this variance is the low number of positive cases in Archuleta County, with that number being eight, Cox added later.

Concerns

There has been some pushback in regard to this variance request, Cox explained, adding that it has mostly come through social media.

Specifically, the concern raised on social media is that, by opening businesses back up, it could create a situation where more visitors and tourists come into town and increase the chance of spreading COVID-19, he described. 

“This is not something that we dispute. We already see visitors coming to town and we don’t see any way that this will not happen, and, frankly, for us to move on with our society, not just in Archuleta County, but overall in the world, we have to figure out how to best combat transmitting it, protecting those who are vulnerable and also allowing business to operate,” he said.

The last thing the business owners want is to introduce a virus into the community from a patron visiting their business, Cox explained.

“This is about a pragmatic balance between the necessities of public health and those for economic vitality,” he said.

In an interview on Wednesday morning, BoCC Chair Ron Maez explained that the BoCC would wait to see what town council decides before holding a special meeting of its own.

Wednesday evening update:

The Pagosa Springs Town Council voiced unanimous support for the draft plan of a variance request from small business owners to the state’s public health orders pertaining to COVID-19 at a special meeting on May 13.

The variance proposes allowing businesses that are not yet open due to public health orders, for example restaurants, gyms and pools, be able to do so while following criteria set out in a suppression plan.

Archuleta County must be the applicant, and additionally, the variance request must include an alternative suppression plan for COVID-19 that is endorsed by San Juan Basin Public Health and adopted by the Archuleta Board of County Commissioners

Pagosa Springs Medical Center must also verify that it has the capacity to serve those needing its care, according to council agenda documentation.

 

This story was posted on May 14, 2020.