GarCo restaurant

Mi Casita in Carbondale. Myriad restaurants in Garfield County reported they've been told by officials that they are allowed to continue operating at 50% capacity, regardless of the state placing the county in the orange section of public health orders.

Garfield County, citing a variance it received in May, has told its restaurants they can continue to operate at 50% capacity indoors, despite state officials saying they cannot.

In a letter dated Nov. 18 and signed by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Garfield County commissioners John Martin, Tom Jankovsky and Mike Samson were made aware of the county’s concerning metrics and forthcoming shift from level yellow (caution) to level orange (high risk) on the state’s COVID-19 dial.

According to the letter — obtained by the Aspen Daily News through a Colorado Open Records Act request — between Oct. 26 and Nov. 18, Garfield County’s two-week cumulative incidence rate tripled from 221 per 100,000 people to 664 per 100,000 people. During the same time period, Garfield County also saw its percent positivity rate jump from 6.8% to 12.5% and its new two-week case count increase from 133 to 400.

“While the county’s incidence rate, increasing case count and percent testing positivity are aligned with COVID-19 dial level red, in conversations with your public health agency, we have decided that a gradual implementation of restrictions is more suitable at this time,” the state’s letter to the commissioners, as well as County Manager Kevin Batchelder and Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long, stated. “As such, CDPHE is moving Garfield County to COVID-19 dial level orange.”

The letter instructed Garfield County “to inform residents, businesses and other stakeholders” to ensure the transition was completed by Nov. 20 at 5 p.m.

When the state moves counties from level yellow to level orange, restaurants and places of worship must reduce their indoor operating capacities from 50% to 25%. Garfield County has told restaurants and places of worship they can continue to operate at 50% capacity indoors because of the county’s variances, which it says it received on May 23.

According to CDPHE Chief of Staff Mara Brosy-Wiwchar, site-specific variances — like those in place for the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool and Iron Mountain Hot Springs — remain intact.

“Site-specific variances stay, such as the hot springs,” Brosy-Wiwchar said in an email Wednesday. “Sector-wide variances, such as restaurants, do not apply.”

Counties like Garfield that have found themselves in the orange high-risk level on the state’s COVID-19 dial must limit restaurants to 25% indoor operating capacity, Brosy-Wiwchar explained.

On Wednesday, restaurants in Parachute, Rifle, Silt, New Castle, Glenwood Springs and Carbondale told the Aspen Daily News they were operating at 50% capacity under the direction of Garfield County.

On Nov. 19 — two days after Garfield County commissioners had a phone meeting with Brosy-Wiwchar and just one day after receiving Ryan’s letter — the county issued a press release claiming the state “indicated” that Garfield County’s current variances would “remain in place.”

The press release, issued by Garfield County Chief Communications Officer Renelle Lott, stated that indoor restaurant service rules would “remain the same” and that houses of worship could “continue to operate at yellow levels under the county’s variance.”

But that’s not reflective of what CDPHE representatives relayed.

“All sector variances are absorbed by the dial, either when the transition to the new dial framework occurred or when a county moves to a more restrictive level,” Michelle Child, CDPHE variance case manager, said in an email. “As such, Garfield County is required to operate according to the sector allowances in level orange.”

In addition to Lott, neither Garfield County commissioners John Martin, Tom Jankovsky nor Mike Samson returned calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Garfield County Public Health Public Information Officer Carrie Godes directed the Aspen Daily News to the county’s amended public health order listed on the county’s website. The document, titled “Level Orange as Applied in Garfield County,” says that restaurants and places of worship can still operate at 50% capacity indoors. According to Godes, the document was put together by the county’s attorney.

In a guest column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and on Wednesday and again in The Sopris Sun Thursday, Martin, Jankovsky, and Samson said, “We must make sure that our hospitals have the capacity to help those that are ill, not only with COVID, but everyday maladies.” In their guest column, the commissioners continued: “as most of you know, the state has moved us into the orange, or ‘high-risk’ category on its COVID-19 dial. We feel that being in the yellow, or ‘concerned’ level, more accurately matches the situation in our county.”

Not every public official in the Roaring Fork Valley agrees with the commissioners’ feelings, however.

“None of the commissioners have the expertise in public health or epidemiology,” Markey Butler, Pitkin County Board of Health chair, said in an interview last week about the Garfield County decision. “They need to really get a board of health going, but I can’t criticize them. I guess they can do what they want to.”

The Pitkin County Board of Health includes doctors and elected officials from the county’s various communities. In an interview earlier this month, Lott said Garfield County did have a board of health and that it was made up of commissioners Martin, Jankovsky, and Samson.

Pitkin County, also in level orange, instructed its restaurants to reduce their indoor operating capacities to 25% in accordance with CDPHE guidelines beginning last week. That health board also instituted additional restrictions above and beyond those implemented by the state in an effort to move the county back into level yellow for the holiday season.

According to the most up-to-date numbers, over the last 14 days, Pitkin County’s incidence rate was 557 and its percent positivity rate at 8.2%.

Additionally, Pitkin County reported 99 new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks.

Should a county move from level orange to level red on the state’s COVID-19 dial, restaurants would have to stop indoor dining altogether and resort to curbside, takeout or delivery in addition to several other restrictions.

Matthew Bennett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at: matthew@aspendailynews.com