Teller County Bets on Major Campaign to Reopen All Businesses

Variance To Signal Green Light For Casinos, Theaters, Gyms, Churches and Restaurant/Bars

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

It’s time to reopen all of our casinos, businesses, churches, restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and shops immediately, as the coronavirus threat in our county has greatly decreased.

And the longer we stay closed, the more chances that local residents will suffer continual mental, emotional and financial anguish.  Moreover, we are ready to require staunch anti-COVID-19 safety and social distancing measures for our business partners.

That is the theme of a comprehensive proposal submitted by Teller County, which is rolling the dice big- time in an effort to fully reopen their doors in probably the most aggressive bid made by any Colorado county since the state enacted mandatory closures.

Late last week, the county filed an 80-page variance plan to exempt itself from many restrictions imposed through the state’s safer-at-home order. The variance package was submitted to the executive director of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Jill Hansaker.

“We are ready to open,” said Teller County Commission Chairman Marc Dettenrieder, who has played a key role in spearheading the reopening effort.  The county’s proposal is

Teller County Commission Chairman Marc Dettenrieder

equipped with endorsements from leading law enforcement officials, social service and business leaders, elected and head officials from Cripple Creek, Victor and Woodland Park, gaming experts and much more.

More importantly, the county has presented a detailed mitigation plan that demonstrates how large-scale businesses, such as casinos, can reopen while protecting employees and patrons from the coronavirus threat.

In an interview last week, Dettenrieder stressed that the county has taken a broad-based approach and didn’t want to single out any specific type of business. “We are not in the business of picking and choosing. We want to reopen everything,” said the commissioner. “Our main argument is that we have a low (coronavirus) case count,” added the commission chairman.

Current statistics indicate Dettenrieder has a valid point. Teller has only recorded 16 people testing positive for the coronavirus pandemic since the middle of March, with a maximum of two cases per day. Out of a total of approximately 30 COVID-19 confirmed cases, county officials say that only two current cases are active.

These points are the centerpiece of Teller’s reopening pursuit. “Our request for a variance is appropriate because we have a low case count, more than adequate hospital capacity, and a reopening plan that is sufficient to safely continue our response to COVID-19 and recovery,” state the commissioners in their opening letter to the state.  “In Teller County, the COVID-19 curve has flattened and the small number of documented cases remains stable. We are now in the position to ease some of the restrictions in PHO 20-28 (the safer-at-home order).”

County and business leaders make it clear that the region has been decimated economically and is facing growing dangers from remaining closed and grappling with the current state restrictions.

Social Isolation Leading to “Perfect Storm” For Domestic Violence

District Attorney Dan May notes that the social isolation created from the restrictions have resulted in a huge spike in felony domestic violence cases, including a recent murder. “These are very serious cases involving weapons, stalking and hours and days of violence that quite frankly are torturous.  Unfortunately, the latest murder in Teller County (involving the murder-suicide of a local couple) was the result of domestic violence,” said May, in a letter supporting the county’s reopening bid.

Similar sentiments are echoed by Sheriff Jason Mikesell, who notes the county has experienced a 40 percent increase in assaults since the state restrictions were enacted, along with an 85 percent hike in suicides. “We believe this is a direct result of an inability of people to report crimes quickly when they are at home with the perpetrators and/or a feeling of dread from lack of social interaction in our community,” stated the sheriff.

Even Teller Human Services Director Kim Mauthe chimed in regarding the theme of the restrictions generating problems for the area. “The stresses of children doing school full time in the home and the parents either working from the home or unemployed all appear to be factors in this recent surge of violent encounters. This event has led to the isolation of our community members which impacts every part of our community.”

But according to Dettenrieder, the county’s plan does not advocate a free-for-all system of operating businesses. He stressed that firm, common sense social distancing and strict anti-coronavirus public safety rules will be enacted. It won’t be business as usual for any gaming establishment or local bar/restaurant, according to the county’s plan.

New Changes For Casinos, Theaters and Bars/Restaurants

For example, if the casinos reopen, they will be required to have health screenings and masks for employees, vendors and guests; physical distancing for employees and guests playing slots or table games, with the prospects of putting many betting devices and games out of use; hand sanitizer and health notices throughout the property; increased frequency of cleaning and disinfecting of all public spaces and guest rooms; the prohibition of valet services and self-serving stations and changes with the way buffets are handled; the creation of many physical barriers between customers and patrons and possible customer limits; restrictions on high traffic areas that meet or exceed state and federal guidelines and a framework for responding to emergency medical incidents.

“With these actions, along with those outlined in Teller County’s variance request, we believe we can take the necessary measures to reopen in a manner that maximizes the health and safety of all who come onto a casino property while permitting our guests to return to one of their favorite pastimes,” said Jeff Weist, executive director of the Cripple Creek Casino Association.

“The start-up costs (for casinos) are going to be enormous,” said Scott Porter, director of corporate casino operations for Triple Crown Casinos, when addressing the Cripple Creek City Council last week. He briefly described some of the new proposed restrictions. Still, despite the possible new rules, casinos are ready to reopen. In fact, Weist notes that the extended closure has cost the area millions of dollars.

However, the county’s bid is just not about the temporary loss of the gaming industry. Detailed reopening mitigation plans are also offered for gyms, churches, restaurants, and bars in the county’s proposal. Governor Jared Polis has indicated bars and restaurants can reopen for dine-in service possibly by Memorial Day, with restrictions.

But what frustrates county and local business leaders is that the state rules change on a daily basis for the gradual reopening of Colorado. That is one reason the county is taking the bulls by the horn in adopting a variance plan.

“We really need to strike a balance,” said Dettenrieder. “The economic impacts are huge. Time is of the essence.”

The campaign to reopen Teller County has been relayed by officials from the Woodland Park Downtown Development Authority, county commissioner candidates, many influential business operators and politicians. Plus, tensions are growing between current operators of some businesses and local regulators (see related story), with a growing number of residents suffering a bad case of “cabin fever.”

It’s unclear about the prospects of the county’s plan getting the green light from the state. Two counties, Mesa and Eagle, have had variance requests approved. However, Teller is proposing a much more aggressive reopening bid than any of these areas, according to Dettenrieder.

The plan must meet certain thresholds that deal with such considerations as the prevalence of COVID-19 cases within the county, the hospital capacity to handle the threat and the merit of local containment measures and their alternative safety restrictions.

County officials are confident they have fulfilled these steps. In order to submit a plan, the county had to get the  okay of the  board of commissioners, local hospitals and the public health agency. The county obtained these approvals late last week.