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Why COVID-19 Dial 3.0 Is So Useless Now

Gilpin County, home of the Ameristar Black Hawk casino, has been allowed to move to Level Green even though its incidence rate is in the Level Yellow range.
Gilpin County, home of the Ameristar Black Hawk casino, has been allowed to move to Level Green even though its incidence rate is in the Level Yellow range.
Photo by Michael Roberts
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Two Colorado counties, Gilpin and Alamosa, are celebrating a move today, March 31, to Level Green on the state's Dial 3.0 dashboard — even though both currently have two-week cumulative incidence rates that are solidly in the Level Yellow range.

This seeming contradiction is hardly rare. Thanks to changes in the dial intended to guide COVID-related restrictions instituted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on March 24, approximately two-thirds of Colorado's 64 counties actually register incidence rates higher than those for the levels at which they're being allowed to operate — and some are a lot higher.

The incidence rate in several counties would put them three dial positions above where they are now allowed to operate because the rules have been loosened substantially over the past week. Under prior measures, Kit Carson, Yuma, Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties would all qualify for Level Red. But today, no Colorado counties are in the red, and Kit Carson is rated Level Green.

Confused? That's understandable. Previously, the state established five color levels — green, blue, yellow, orange and red (a sixth, purple, labeled "extreme risk," has largely disappeared) — for the dial, with one of the main governing principles being the two-week cumulative incidence rate of the novel coronavirus. Counties were placed in Level Green if they had fewer than 25 cases per 100,000 residents; Level Blue for 25 to 75; Level Yellow for 75 to 175; Level Orange for 175 to 300; and Level Red for anything above 300. The CDPHE is still tracking these numbers, even though the page on its website devoted to them emphasizes that they are no longer a "Dial Metric."

Here are the latest guidelines, released by the state health department March 23, and how they relate to Dial 3.0:

• The metrics for Level Green: Protect Our Neighbors have changed. These changes make it easier for counties to achieve Protect Our Neighbors status. Now, counties qualify for Protect Our Neighbors if they have up to 35 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people — up from 15 cases.

• There is no longer a certification process for Level Green: Protect Our Neighbors. Counties will be moved into Level Green once they maintain the appropriate metrics for at least one week.

• Most restrictions in Level Green: Protect Our Neighbors are now removed. Bars and indoor events must still adhere to a 50 percent capacity limit or a 500-person cap, whichever is fewer.

• The metrics range for Level Blue is now 36-100 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people.

• Bars can now open under Level Blue. The capacity limit is 25 percent capacity or 75 people, whichever is fewer.

• Outdoor events in Levels Green and Blue no longer have state-level capacity restrictions under the dial. Counties may choose to implement capacity restrictions on outdoor events at the local level.

• Retail, offices, and non-critical manufacturing in Level Blue may now open to 75 percent capacity, up from 50 percent.

• There is no longer a state limit on personal gathering sizes. The state will follow CDC’s guidance on personal gatherings. The CDC still strongly recommends avoiding larger gatherings and crowds to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

• 5 Star restaurants and gyms in Levels Blue and Yellow may operate at 100 percent capacity with 6 feet of distance between parties as a way to provide businesses with increased flexibility, while still limiting indoor mass gatherings. The state expects that maintaining a 6 foot distancing requirement will be a limiting factor for most indoor spaces.

• 5 Star certified seated and unseated indoor events may operate at 50 percent capacity with a 500-person limit in Level Blue. 5 Star seated indoor events in Level Yellow may operate at 50 percent capacity with a 225 person limit and unseated indoor events in Level Yellow may operate at 50 percent capacity with a 175 person limit.

These shifts, which are expected to remain in place until mid-April, were made even though COVID-19 data, which Governor Jared Polis had said for months drives policy (though he hasn't used the line much lately), is actually edging up.

We sorted Colorado's counties by their official color level and compared them to their incidence rate this morning, March 31. Dozens of counties have incidence rates that would have forced them to impose considerably tougher restrictions if state officials hadn't figuratively moved the goalposts. For instance, only two Level Blue counties actually boast numbers that fall within the original standards for that designation; fifteen do not. Likewise, just one Level Yellow county would have previously qualified; the remaining fifteen, including Denver, would have landed higher up the dial:

Here's the tally:

Green Counties That Should Be Green
(fewer than eight cases in the past two weeks)

Moffat, San Juan, Dolores, Hinsdale, Saguache, Conejos, Costilla, Jackson, Baca, Prowers, Bent, Kiowa, Cheyenne, Lincoln, Sedgwick, Phillips, Crowley, Mineral

Green Counties That Should Be Yellow

Delta (125.1 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Gunnison (97.2 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Rio Grande (133.5 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Logan (136.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Gilpin (160.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Custer (158.1 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Alamosa (80.3 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Green Counties That Should Be Orange

Rio Blanco (285.4 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Ouray (202.7 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Huerfano (189.7 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Washington (316.3 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Green Counties That Should Be Red

Kit Carson (364.8 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Blue Counties That Should Be Blue

Montrose (70.2 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Otero (43.8 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Blue Counties That Should Be Yellow

Montezuma (110.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Fremont (132.2 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Park (169.8 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Chaffee (78.6 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Morgan (165.6 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Las Animas (96.6 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Mesa (83.3 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
San Miguel (97.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Blue Counties That Should Be Orange

Archuleta (307.1 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Pueblo (214.1 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Lake (259.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Clear Creek (246.4 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Jefferson (237.2 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Arapahoe (213.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Blue Counties That Should Be Red

Yuma (387.6 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Yellow Counties That Should Be Yellow

Grand (165.4 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Yellow Counties That Should Be Orange

Routt (272.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Garfield (277.6 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Larimer (290.5 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Boulder (262.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Weld (272.4 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Adams (242.7 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Douglas (286.7 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Elbert (251.1 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
El Paso (305.1 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
La Plata (247 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Denver (266.3 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Broomfield (253 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Teller (287.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Yellow Counties That Should Be Red

Summit (684.2 two-week cumulative incidence rate)
Eagle (503 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

Orange Counties That Should Be Red

Pitkin (1148.9 two-week cumulative incidence rate)

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