Colorado to open bars in many counties, start rolling back COVID dial system

'Dial 3.0' to take effect March 24; state to make dial optional for counties by mid-April

Ellis Arnold
earnold@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 3/21/21

After six months living under the state's “dial” system of restrictions, Coloradans will soon see individual counties making the calls on what coronavirus precautions to enforce.

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Colorado to open bars in many counties, start rolling back COVID dial system

'Dial 3.0' to take effect March 24; state to make dial optional for counties by mid-April

Posted

After six months living under the state's “dial” system of restrictions, Coloradans will soon see individual counties making the calls on what coronavirus precautions to enforce.

On March 19, the state released a draft of the latest in a monthslong line of revisions to the COVID-19 dial. But this time, the state public-health department announced its intention to retire the dial system: By April 16, the dial will become guidance, rather than an order, that counties can choose to adopt or not.

The state's color-coded COVID-19 dial is the set of restrictions counties must follow based on the local spread of the virus. The system affects capacity at restaurants, other businesses, indoor and outdoor events, and other settings. Colorado originally implemented the dial on Sept. 15.

Among the dial's six levels, blue — the current level of many counties across the state — is the second-least restrictive. Purple, the most restrictive level, is a stay-at-home order.

Nearly the whole state was operating under the blue or yellow levels as of mid-March. Some Denver-area counties had progressed to blue by then, but others were still in yellow.

The proposed changes — dubbed “dial 3.0” — were to take effect on March 24 and would make it easier for counties to move into level green, also called the “protect our neighbors” stage. That's the dial's least-restrictive level. The proposed changes would also remove many of the restrictions that apply at that level.

The update would also relax restrictions for certain businesses in level-blue counties. Among the most notable changes: Bars that do not have full-service kitchens would be able to open in blue. Those bars have generally been closed for nearly the entire pandemic in Colorado.

State officials cited the increasing number of Coloradans who have received COVID-19 vaccine shots in announcing the proposed changes.

“Because of the commitment of all Coloradans, we are where we are now, able to be less restrictive and provide local communities and their public health agencies more control while still protecting the public's health,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the state public-health department's executive director, said in a news release.

Still, public health researchers urge the need for continued caution, pointing to COVID-19 variants and saying that protective behaviors — such as mask-wearing and physical distancing — are still necessary to keep the pandemic from rebounding.

“Rapid vaccine roll out and high vaccine uptake will be important for preventing deaths and increases in hospital demands if B.1.1.7 (the United Kingdom variant) and/or other variants spread rapidly in Colorado,” a March 10 report by the Colorado School of Public Health says.

Coloradans were able to review the proposed changes to the dial system here and submit feedback here by noon March 22. The state planned to make updates based on feedback, the news release said.

Here's a breakdown of the proposed changes.

Bars open after long haul

The anticipated opening of bars in level-blue counties comes after nearly a year straight of remaining closed for in-person service.

Bars that function with a full-service kitchen or provide food from a licensed retail food establishment, such as a neighboring restaurant or food truck, were able to open along with restaurants as of May 27, according to a state fact sheet. But others remained closed to the public.

On June 18, the state announced bars could open at 25% occupancy or 50 patrons, whichever is less. That change also included other drinking establishments, such as breweries, distillery pubs and clubs.

What followed was a quick reversal: Just 12 days after allowing bars and nightclubs to open in-person service, a concerning uptick in COVID-19 cases fueled by young Coloradans prompted state officials to close the establishments again.

Now, under the March 19 proposed changes, bars could open in level blue at 25% capacity or 75 people, whichever is fewer. Most counties are in blue, including some in the Denver metro area. See a map that shows each county's dial level and what restrictions apply to each level here.

See a chart of the proposed dial 3.0 restrictions here.

The opening of bars and other relaxations of the dial restrictions come at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations appear to have plateaued — and possibly begun to rise — after months of decline. COVID-19 test-positivity rates also recently ticked up after months of general decline.

Personal gatherings

A less-talked-about aspect of Colorado's COVID-19 restrictions lately is the limit on personal gatherings.

The restriction is the same across blue, yellow and orange — the dial's middle levels. The state allows up to 10 people from no more than two households, although it's the type of regulation where officials generally must rely on voluntary compliance.

The dial 3.0 changes would do away with that limit.

“There is no longer a state limit on personal gathering sizes,” the state public-health department said in the news release. “The state will follow (federal) CDC's guidance on personal gatherings. The CDC still strongly recommends avoiding larger gatherings and crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

Changes to level blue

Retail, offices and “noncritical” manufacturing in level blue could open to 75% capacity, up from 50% previously.

Outdoor events in levels green and blue would no longer have capacity restrictions. Counties may choose to implement restrictions on outdoor events at the local level, the news release said.

Under the “dial 2.0” changes to Colorado's restrictions on Feb. 6, the state public-health department drastically eased the limits on incidence rates — rates of new cases — that allow counties to remain in certain levels of the dial. The arrival of the “dial 2.0” system had moved Denver metro counties down to level yellow from level orange.

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.

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

The state announced even further changes on March 8 that included adding a new “disease incidence metric buffer.” The “buffer” change allowed 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.

5-Star business update

Under the dial 3.0 changes, 5-Star businesses in level blue could operate up to 60% capacity — not to exceed 50 people above the caps for restaurants and indoor events and 25 people above the cap for gyms.

Colorado's 5-Star State Certification Program allows businesses to operate with expanded capacity if they follow stepped-up COVID-19 safety protocols, generally letting businesses follow restrictions that are one level lower on the dial than they otherwise would be able to without certification. Read more about the program here.

Businesses with 5-Star certification may not operate in the next lowest level below blue — level green — unless the county is formally in that level.

Level green looser, easier to attain

The dial 3.0 update would change the virus-spread metrics that counties need to meet to enter level green, making it easier for counties to achieve.

The level a county qualifies for on the dial generally depends on the county's rate of new cases, its percentage of COVID-19 tests that come back positive, and whether hospitalizations are increasing, stable or declining.

Now, counties could apply for that “protect our neighbors” level if they have an incidence rate up to 35 cases per 100,000 people — up from 15 previously.

Most restrictions in level green would be removed. Bars, gyms and indoor events would still need to adhere to a 50% capacity limit or a 500-person cap, whichever is fewer.

Further opening in April

The dial 3.0 changes may only matter for a few weeks — by mid-April, the state public-health department intends to “move to a more local model, allowing local public health agencies to assume more control over capacity restrictions that are currently determined by the dial,” the news release said.

On April 16, the dial would become guidance that counties can choose whether to adopt, according to the draft policy. Currently, the dial system is backed by the dial public health order.

The draft policy mentions a statewide public health order that would take effect to continue limits on indoor unseated mass gatherings.

It would “maintain public health guidelines for indoor, high-risk environments,” possibly at a limit of “50% (capacity) not to exceed 500 people,” the draft policy says. It appears that limit would apply to indoor events and last until at least mid-May, according to the policy.

The draft also mentions a “snap back” for counties if local hospital capacity is threatened, suggesting state-imposed restrictions could return.

“This is the plan today assuming nothing changes with the variants to cause a rapid increase in cases,” the draft says.

Previously, the state had said dial 3.0 would occur in the spring and that a final update to the dial was expected in early summer. It was not immediately clear if another update would occur given the newly announced April change.

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