Gov. Jared Polis’ announcement on Monday that the state was moving into phase two of its response to the novel coronavirus, allowing some nonessential businesses to reopen, was met not with relief, but confusion for many Coloradans. After a month of staying home and social distancing, many residents questioned whether it was safe to “reopen” the state so soon, especially as the overall number of reported cases and deaths continue to tick upward (there are now 10,861 confirmed cases and 506 deaths). 

In a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Polis addressed these concerns, while reiterating that Colorado’s “Safer at Home” phase isn’t an invitation to return to normalcy, but an opportunity to regain some parts of the economy and life as we once knew it—an opportunity that could easily be taken away if Coloradans fail to adhere to the new guidelines. 

“This is not a free-for-all,” he said. “This is not an excuse to turn this into some kind of a vacation. It’s a pandemic.”

Colorado is pursuing what Polis called an “all-of-the-above” strategy for tackling the outbreak during this new phase. This includes maintaining 60 to 65 percent social distancing for all Coloradans and higher levels of social distancing for vulnerable populations (those over the age of 65 or with preexisting conditions); wearing masks anytime you leave the home; increasing protective measures at assisted living and senior care facilities; building upon our healthcare capacity; continuing to maintain proper hygiene (wash your hands!); and, of course, increasing testing and contact tracing. 

It’s the last point that has drawn the most scrutiny over the previous days. Public health experts have maintained that widespread testing and targeted isolation is the best way to manage an outbreak while allowing portions of the economy to return to normal. Even Scott Bookman, Colorado’s COVID-19 incident commander, said last week that, “The state won’t reopen until we have the capacity to make everyone safe.” Polis refuted that comment the following day, saying: “If any state, if any country, were to wait until we could keep everybody safe, we’d have to be closed forever.” 

On Wednesday, Polis maintained that testing, while important, is just one part of the state’s strategy—and for a reason. He referenced modeling that showed that even if the state could test 80 percent of symptomatic individuals within 48 hours—something that is not currently possible—it still wouldn’t be enough to ensure that hospitals don’t hit capacity. 

“Testing is an important tool. It’s not a panacea. It doesn’t solve anything,” Polis said. “We can’t just test and trace our way out of this in any model.”

Furthermore, the governor said that modeling shows that extending the stay-at-home order for two or four more weeks delays the outbreak’s peak but has a negligible effect on its severity. However, the economic and psychological harm that could come from not relaxing the restrictions could be devastating for individuals, businesses, and the community. 

Polis reiterated that the point of the stay-at-home order was to slow the virus’ spread, prevent hospitals from being overrun, and buy time for our medical system to respond. This, in turn, prevents unnecessary deaths due to a lack of hospital beds, ventilators, or other therapies. On this initial challenge, Colorado has succeeded. Polis said that hospital systems are reporting sufficient amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, and two temporary hospitals at the Colorado Convention Center and the Ranch Events Center in Loveland have increased bed capacity by 850. 

Still, the state is continuing to build up its testing capabilities. Polis announced that 150,000 tests will be arriving by the end of the week from South Korea, in addition to 20,000 swabs that have already arrived, and 150,000 more that will show up later in the month. He also announced a partnership with Colorado State University to expand mandatory testing at nursing facilities in order to prevent outbreaks from occurring. The state is deploying hundreds of thousands of antibody tests through a partnership with the Gary Community Foundation, while National Jewish announced on Wednesday that it was launching drive-up antibody testing to anyone, without a prescription. 

As for the Safer at Home phase, Polis provided additional information on what types of businesses can reopen and when. He said that during this phase, they’re focusing on businesses that provide one-on-one or contactless services, which is why you won’t see restaurants, bars, nightclubs, spas, or gyms on the list. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will be providing industry-specific guidance on how to safely reopen directly to businesses in the coming days. 

“We do not classify this as a grand reopening,” he said. “We need to get this right if it’s going to be successful. We’re all charting new ground here, making the best, most informed decisions that we can.” 

Guidelines for the general public: 

  • Maintain 60 to 65 percent social distancing and limit social interactions whenever possible; when around others, maintain 6 feet of physical distance 
  • Always wear a face covering when in public
  • Recreate near your home (within 10 miles) 
  • Avoid unnecessary travel 
  • Do not host or attend gatherings with family and friends, even if it’s less than 10 people 
  • Recreate alone or with those you live with 
  • Avoid pick-up sports and sharing equipment 

Guidelines for workplaces (these will be enforced): 

  • Operate at no more than 50 percent capacity
  • Allow telecommuting whenever possible 
  • Maintain at least 6 feet of distance between colleagues 
  • Put up signage about good hygiene / hand-washing
  • Open windows, turn on fans, increase ventilation whenever possible 
  • Avoid meetings or gatherings of more than 10 individuals 
  • Institute symptom monitoring (required for medium and large companies, but encouraged for all companies)
  • Encourage employees to stay home if they’re sick 
  • Follow industry-specific guidelines from the CDPHE 

Businesses that can reopen: 

  • Retail businesses can open for curbside delivery starting April 27. Those that want to can open to the general public on May 1 with additional social distancing precautions.
  • Noncritical offices can open at 50 percent capacity starting Monday, May 4, if following the above guidelines.
  • Childcare will remain open with strict precautions.
  • Education facilities will remain closed. One-on-one tutoring is allowed.
  • Personal services (such as salons, tattoo parlors, dog groomers, dental offices, personal training, etc.) can reopen with strict precautions. Gyms and spas will remain closed.
  • Real estate sales can continue with private showings, but no open houses.
  • Elective surgeries can resume with precautions.
  • Bars, restaurants, and nightclubs will stay closed, although a phased-in reopening of restaurants is expected during this phase.

Finally, Polis reiterated that it’s up to Coloradans to get this right by following the guidelines, exercising caution, and remaining patient, as we’re in this for the long haul. “We need to manage our expectations and behavior in the coming months,” Polis said. “While we hope that by June, we will have more ability to do the things we love, it still won’t be a free-for-all. We’re going to do this in a manageable way.” 

Erin Skarda
Erin Skarda
Erin is a Denver-based writer and the former digital editor for 5280.