During a jam-packed August 18 press conference, Governor Jared Polis provided updates about the ongoing fight against COVID-19 and the battle against multiple wildfires in the state, and offered insights as to how the interactions of these crises increase challenges in dealing with each. But he also hinted that his controversial order establishing a temporary 10 p.m. last call for alcohol at restaurants and bars could be tweaked and perhaps loosened in light of improving statistics related to the novel coronavirus.
"With the lower numbers, we're hopeful we can make progress on expanding the opportunity for people to enjoy themselves," Polis said. But he also stressed that he remains concerned about limiting the party atmosphere in college towns such as Boulder and Fort Collins, particularly since many students returning to campus for the fall will likely be coming from communities "with a much higher presence of the virus" than Colorado has right now.
At the outset of his remarks, Polis laid out COVID-19 data in major categories: 53,631 positive cases, including 261 confirmed today, as well as 1,858 people who died with COVID-19 —1,736 of them as a direct result of the disease. He noted that Colorado has experienced a downward viral trend for ten of the past fourteen days. Even better, the state scored its lowest positivity rate since the start of the pandemic: 2.18 percent. He attributed this achievement to greater testing volume coupled with Coloradans' compliance with public-health recommendations such as wearing masks in public, maintaining social distance and avoiding participation in large public events.
At that point, Polis pivoted to a discussion of the wildfires, with specific references to the Grizzly Creek fire, currently the highest-priority blaze in the country, plus the Pine Gulch fire, the Williams Fork fire and the Cameron Peak fire.
The conflagrations vary in size, severity and impact. The Grizzly Creek fire, for example, has led to the closure of Interstate 70 through Glenwood Canyon, and there's currently no time frame for the highway's reopening, to the detriment of tourism-related businesses that Polis said had been experiencing a better season than anyone could have expected just a few months ago. Taken together, all the fires have consumed thousands of acres and required the expenditure of resources already stretched thin by the COVID-19 response.
According to Polis, critical first responders have had to be tested; there have also been disruptions in supplies for personal protective equipment. Moreover, the poor air quality across the state resulting from the fires can mimic COVID-19 symptoms related to respiration. As a result, Polis encouraged anyone with a cough or difficulty breathing to schedule tests for themselves, so they can learn if they've contracted the virus or are feeling the effects of the smoky air.
Further details on these subjects were shared by Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources and a wildfire mitigation specialist who just returned from several days battling the Grizzly Creek fire. "Fighting fires during COVID-19 is definitely very different from my experiences of firefighting in the past," he confirmed. Rather than daily, in-person group meetings with multiple crews, he noted that most debriefings take place via radio, and individual firefighters are operating within small pods rather than sprawling groups. Food service and water distribution are also being conducted in ways that allow for social distancing, in an effort to prevent the virus from taking anyone off the line at such a critical juncture.
Next up was Colorado Department of Public Safety director Stan Hilkey, who outlined the ways that the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and the Colorado State Patrol are working with federal and local agencies to coordinate firefighting duties. Together, officials have come up with contingency plans for possible evacuations that focus on settling displaced folks in hotels, motels or college dorms, as opposed to bringing them together in large settings such as gymnasiums or churches, where the prospect of viral spread would be greatly enhanced.
After Dr. Alexis Burakoff, an epidemiologist with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, reinforced some of the governor's earlier remarks about getting tested for COVID-19 should respiratory symptoms arise, Polis revealed that he's issued a thirty-day statewide ban against open fires, including campfires and the use of fireworks. Because three of the four major fires in the state are likely to have been human-caused (the Grizzly Creek fire was probably started by lightning), he said such an edict will create regulatory clarity statewide even as it serves as a reminder for Coloradans and visitors to the state to redouble their efforts to prevent new blazes amid high temperatures, low humidity and ongoing drought conditions.
During a subsequent question-and-answer session, Polis expressed hope that COVID-19 stats will continue to curve downward despite the return of students to school and suggested that spikes linked to elementary and secondary school students are less likely, since they don't live together, as do many college students. He also talked up mail-in voting, as he'd done during a separate event staged yesterday, August 17, at the Denver Elections Division, and promised that long-anticipated regulations related to in-person, indoor visitation at senior centers will finally be released in the next few days.
As for the soon-to-expire 10 p.m. last call order, Polis emphasized that "a social environment akin to a nightclub or spending a late night at a bar where people are inebriated creates an ideal environment for the virus" and added that "no place in America is the nightlife ready to resume the way it existed last year. But that being said, I think the progress that we've made against the virus will hopefully allow for changes," with a potential revision of the executive order coming soon — presumably by the time the previous mandate expires.
Which would be Thursday, August 20.