Colorado again loosens limits on COVID dial of restrictions

Change comes as Broomfield, Jefferson appeared set to possibly slide back to yellow

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UPDATE: The City and County of Broomfield announced it would move back to level yellow at 6 a.m. March 10 as directed by the state public-health department.

As two Denver metro counties watched their rates of new coronavirus cases hover in territory that could roll back their success in reopening, the state public-health department announced changes to Colorado's color-coded system of restrictions that make it easier for counties to remain in their respective dial levels.

The state's COVID-19 dial is the set of restrictions counties must follow based on local virus spread. The restrictions apply to capacity at restaurants, other businesses, indoor and outdoor events, and other settings.

Among the dial's six levels, blue is the second-least restrictive. The state moved Broomfield to level blue effective Feb. 22, according to Broomfield's website. Jefferson, Park and Clear Creek counties entered level blue on Feb. 26, according to the state's COVID-19 website.

Despite Broomfield and Jefferson moving to blue, their one-week rates of new cases as of March 1 appeared to have ticked up to levels that threatened to move the counties back up one level to yellow.

As of March 7, the counties still appeared poised to backslide: Jefferson sat at 105 new cases per 100,000 people, and Broomfield at 150.

As of the Feb. 6 changes, counties qualify for level blue, in part, when they maintain enough days below 100 new cases per 100,000 people.

Shortly after the state's announcement on March 8, Broomfield posted on Twitter that it would move to level yellow at 6 a.m. March 10 as directed by the state public-health department.

That afternoon, the state public-health department announced changes to the dial public health order — the document that outlines how the dial system works — that include adding a new “disease incidence metric buffer.”

A county's number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people within one week is known as the county's incidence rate.

The “buffer” change allows counties to exceed their dial level's incidence rate limit and still remain in the same level as long as counties do not exceed the minimum of the next dial level's incidence rate by more than 15% for five consecutive days, according to a news release.

The change “creates more predictability with dial moves and prevents counties moving back and forth unnecessarily by ensuring a consistent trend is present first,” the news release said.

That change appears to run counter to policy goals the state public-health department outlined in a Feb. 5 news release that announced the recent major overhaul of the dial system, dubbed “dial 2.0.” In that round of changes, the state public-health department drastically eased the limits that allow counties to remain in certain color-coded levels of coronavirus restrictions.

“Dial 2.0 is designed so that counties can swiftly move into more restrictive levels when their numbers go up, and more quickly into recovery when their numbers go down,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the department's executive director, said in the Feb. 5 news release.

“Additionally, instead of looking at the numbers over a 14-day period, Dial 2.0 will consider metrics within a seven-day period — making the dial more responsive and flexible,” the Feb. 5 release continued.

A state fact sheet on the dial 2.0 changes put it bluntly: “Dial 2.0 is designed so that counties can move more swiftly into more restrictive levels when their numbers go up.”

The Colorado State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the state public-health department, said in a March 10 statement: "We are pleased to see a plateau in case transmission, and as long as that trend generally continues, we want to give counties as much freedom as possible to respond to their community’s unique needs."

The level a county qualifies for generally depends on its incidence rate, the county's percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive and whether hospitalizations are increasing, stable or declining. To move to a lower level, a county must meet the criteria for all three metrics.

Asked how much Jefferson and Broomfield counties’ incidence rates influenced the state's new changes to the dial system, the Joint Information Center's statement said: "Our dial system is designed to be flexible and to allow counties to use as few restrictions as possible while still protecting public health. Dial metrics are not adjusted for individual counties."

Because Broomfield's incidence rate had hovered so high above 100, the state's new changes announced March 8 wouldn't have prevented the county from sliding back up to level yellow.

The new changes are effective as of March 7, according to the release.

Restaurants see new capacity changes

In level blue, restaurants indoors were previously allowed up to 50% capacity or 175 people (or up to 225 using the state's social distancing space calculator), whichever is fewer.

That's up from 50% capacity or 50 people (or up to 150 using the calculator), whichever is fewer, in level yellow. See the calculator at .

Now, as of the March 7 changes, restaurants and seated indoor events in level blue may expand capacity to 225 people without using the distancing space calculator. Restaurants and seated indoor events in level yellow may expand capacity to 150 people without using the distancing space calculator.

The last call to order alcohol at restaurants has been expanded as follows:

• Level blue: 2 a.m.

• Level yellow: 1 a.m.

• Level orange: 12 a.m.

• Level red: 10 p.m.

See a full list of which restrictions apply to which levels on the dial in the full policy explainer on page 6.

More change for 5-Star businesses

The March 7 update also makes a change for businesses certified as part of Colorado's 5-Star State Certification Program. The program allows businesses to operate with expanded capacity if they follow stepped-up COVID-19 safety protocols, letting businesses follow restrictions that are one level lower on the dial than they otherwise would be able to without certification.

The March 7 change means 5-Star-certified businesses in level blue may expand capacity limits by 50 people above the level blue capacity caps, according to the news release.

For example, 5-Star-certified restaurants in a blue level county can now have up to 275 people — 225 plus the new 50-person boost — or 50%, whichever is fewer, according to the Joint Information Center.

Businesses with 5-Star certification may not operate in the next-lowest level below blue — level green, or "Protect Our Neighbors" — unless the county is formally in that level. Level green is the least-restrictive level on the dial.

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