As Mesa County experiences its longest stretch without a COVID-19 case since the pandemic started, with 52 total cases and zero hospitalizations currently, Mesa County Public Health Director Jeff Kuhr hopes to continue to ease off safer-at-home restrictions.
County health officials have conducted more than 2,300 tests and the rate of positive cases has remained under 3% even as the county has increased its capacity for daily testing. In light of the numbers, county health officials are again hoping for the state’s blessing on relaxed health orders.
In an application awaiting state approval, the Mesa County Health Department seeks to open long closed businesses, facilities and activities such as bars, some restaurants, microbrews and wineries, soccer and other sporting leagues like little league baseball, swimming pools, playgrounds and more.
Kuhr said he’s hoping to hear back on the new variance this week, which would be the second one approved by the state for Mesa County. The application proposes all businesses that apply and that are willing to implement best practices for social distancing, cleaning and other recommendations be allowed to open at 50% capacity.
Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Diane Schwenke said the chamber worked with Kuhr and the health department to find a flexible approach that worked for all businesses.
“Our role has been to demonstrate to state leadership, that our community, not just the commissioners or Mesa County Public Health, is behind this plan,” she said.
Over 50 individuals and entities submitted letters to the governor’s office expressing their support for the county’s plan, including several members of the Chamber Board.
Kuhr said the new plan would include a checklist form available online for businesses to fill out with guides on social distancing and cleaning best practices. Health officials will visit the businesses to answer questions and ensure compliance.
“Anyone willing to implement best practices can submit the form,” Kuhr said.
Schwenke said she wanted less confusion and more local control this time around.
“From a business perspective, we’re very concerned with how Mesa Mall was caught in the crosshairs,” she said. “They had been working diligently with the health department to put a plan into place to allow businesses inside the mall to open.”
Mesa Mall opened May 4 only to close May 5 as indoor mall guidelines from the state and county were not immediately clear.
“The mall was a big issue for us,” she said.
One of the chamber’s pushes was to see quality child care and summer enrichment decided at the local level.
“From a workforce perspective, we want to see summer camps and options for youth so our workforce and parents that will be asked back to work have that option,” Schwenke said.
She also hoped to include other outdoor recreation options like swimming pools “and the kinds of things our children look forward to every summer,” in the variance.
Schwenke wants Mesa County to charter its course and manage things at the local level as it continues to have so few cases, and particularly new cases.
“One size doesn’t fill all for an area like Mesa County,” she added.
One area that might be of particular interest to Grand Valley parents is the prospect of expanded group gathering limits going into July. That’s noteworthy because high school graduation ceremonies were postponed because of the virus. The school district announced it will make no official decisions on graduation practices until June 22 with ceremonies planed for July 10-13.
Without making any guarantees, Kuhr felt that group gathering limitations, currently at 10 people, could be the next restriction Mesa County looks to ease.
He said the gathering restrictions could move to 50 people in the coming weeks and Kuhr hoped to be up to 250 people by July.
“It could really open up options for schools,” he said.
According to Kuhr, other counties have asked for variances as well with one just asking to expand graduation.
CASE NUMBERS STAY LOW
According to Kuhr, Mesa County hasn’t had a new COVID-19 case in at least 10 days and while he’s never going to “let his guard down,” he felt the outbreak was tapering off in Grand Junction and the state as a whole.
“The biggest hit was travelers to resort towns early on,” he said, “Eagle County has had very little activity after being a hotspot early on.”
Kuhr felt that population density seems to be one of the biggest factors in the spread.
“Outside of the high population density spots in the Denver area, it’s time to open back up,” he said.
Part of his wanting the variance is because of the low case count and how prepared the county is for a surge.
“We’re at a point where it makes sense and we should be able to respond rather than keeping everyone in a bubble,” he said. “We’re prepared to respond if there are cases. We’re trained to control the spread so I think we should give it a chance.”
Despite a push from county officials, testing for COVID-19 has stayed low for Mesa County.
At this time, the county is doing around 30 tests a day, well below its capacity and goal, Kuhr said.
The county set a goal to do 1,500 tests in the month of May, but Kuhr said there doesn’t seem to be a ton of interest from the community.
He hoped to test more nursing and long-term care facility employees in the coming weeks.