COVID-19 Update: Inside Weld County's Safer at Work Policy

A bird's-eye view of Greeley.
A bird's-eye view of Greeley. YouTube
As Colorado phases in its new Safer at Home policy following the end of Governor Jared Polis's stay-at-home order, Weld County is going its own way with a program pointedly dubbed Safer at Work.

Polis and other state officials are clearly worried that Weld is going rogue — but should they be? The Safer at Work guidelines are actually quite similar to those espoused by Safer at Home, but other messaging coming out of Weld County raises concerns, particularly since data shows that this area qualifies as one of Colorado's hottest spots.

The latest figures from Weld County, updated at 4 p.m. on April 27, reveal 1,590 cases of the virus and 88 deaths, compared to 13,789 cases and 706 deaths for the state as a whole, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health update.

Weld County currently accounts for approximately 11.5 percent of the cases and 12.5 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 in Colorado. That's roughly twice what those rates should be, given that Weld County's 2019 population stood at 324,492, about 5.6 percent of Colorado's 5.759 million that same year.

Likewise, Weld County's own graphics reveal that the curve of cases and deaths from the virus definitely hasn't been flattened. The chart below, illustrating cases reported by days, shows that some of the biggest spikes there since early March have occurred during the past week.

Fatalities per day in Weld County show the same trend. While deaths over the past week aren't at the peak levels seen in early April, they haven't declined in a steady fashion, either.

These statistics, as well as outbreaks at places like the giant JBS meat plant in Greeley, where at least five workers are said to have died, suggest that authorities in Weld County would have been entirely justified in extending their stay-at-home order to May 8, as have Denver, Jefferson, Boulder, Broomfield, Adams and Arapahoe counties.

Instead, Weld County commissioners went the other direction, issuing this statement on April 24:
Weld County Government is not opening any businesses, just as Weld County Government did not close any businesses. That said, each commissioner has received comments from constituents struggling to make ends meet, pay their bills, and take care of their families who have said they are going to open their businesses.

So, Weld County Government took the proactive response of preparing best practices and guidance that could be used as business owners look to reopen – whenever they feel comfortable to do so. An informed public is a strong public.

The same preventative measures need to be heeded — we’ve said that. Expectations need to be managed — we’re doing that. What we aren’t going to do is pick winners and losers as to who gets to restart their livelihoods.

And at the end of the day, everyone has freedoms: freedom to stay home, freedom to go out, and freedom to support whatever business they want to support.
The combative tone of this statement drew a quick response from the governor's office. Later on April 24, Polis threatened financial and legal action if leaders in any county, including Weld, ignore Safer at Home edicts, and authorized a high-profile testing operation that underscored Weld County's hot-spot status.

Still, Weld hasn't completely eschewed Safer at Home. The businesses and worksites page on the reopening section of the Weld County website states plainly that bars, gyms, movie theaters and other entertainment venues will remain closed, and restaurants continue to be precluded from offering "on-premises consumption."

Likewise, Safer at Work's best-practices offering is replete with tips such as the following:
• Limit the number of customers in your business at one time
• Encourage customers to call ahead and make an appointment
• Keep your door locked and have customers call when they arrive
• Use floor markings to indicate where customers should stand to maintain six feet of separation. Post social distancing reminders throughout your facility
• Install plexiglass barriers at cash registers
• Consider physical barriers where appropriate and creating a one-way flow through the
facility to ensure spacing.
•  Consider adjusting operating hours and creating a designated shopping time for high-risk customers
• Routinely clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces of your facility including doorknobs, credit card machines, counters, handrails, etc. via a predetermined cleaning plan provided to all employees
• Wash your hands or apply hand sanitizer after handling case (it’s been touched by a lot of people). Consider wearing gloves but apply sanitizer after handling cash.
• Use an EPA registered disinfectant and ensure proper contact times keeping the surface wet for a duration that ensures viral destruction
• Remove unnecessary items that may become contaminated and discourage customers from touching anything besides what is required
• Provide alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol
• Place hand sanitizer strategically at the entrance of the facility and in multiple locations
throughout to encourage frequent use
• Provide tissues and no-touch waste receptacles for customers
• Encourage mask usage that covers both the mouth and nose
• Provide posters both outside and inside facility encouraging hand hygiene and appropriate mask use
• Recommend creating a personal hygiene plan based on your operation
These are hardly radical propositions — and neither are other Colorado advisories dedicated to employee safety, reopening protocols and a checklist intended to help businesses avoid oversights.

But these rules and regulations will only mean something if local government makes sure they're implemented properly — and the case of a Greeley business called the Bar.Ber.Shop calls that into question. After owner Jose Oregel told CNN that he'd be opening April 27 even though Safer at Home required him to wait until at least May 1, Polis's office contacted Oregel and strongly suggested that he change his plans. But after receiving assurances from Weld County, he opened his shop anyway.

Oregel clearly feels he's Safer at Work, whether Polis likes it or not.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts