Teller County Stays Status Quo With Level Orange, At-Risk Rating

Commissioner Campbell to State:  “Don’t Shut Down Society”

Rick Langenberg


Teller County is still waving an orange banner, when it comes to state COVID designations and restrictions, at least for now.


That’s good news for Cripple Creek casinos and local restaurants, whose immediate fate depends on this state code-color rating system.


However, the county commissioners and head administrator indicated last week that this scenario could change instantly, and admit that their plight is a week-by-week call.   Plus, the county as a whole continues to experience a soaring COVID-19 case invasion.


A meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to further evaluate Teller’s situation.


“We are still in the orange (the at-risk COVID code level rated by the state).  Our cases are in the red,” said Teller County Administrator Sheryl Decker, when making her official report at last week’s regular commissioners meeting. With an official red rating, casinos would be forced to close and all in-door dining would cease, and more restrictions would occur for gatherings and business operations.


Decker said Teller’s main problem deals with their high case load, a trend that is similar to other counties in the state. She said the county has recorded 207 positive COVID cases in the last 14 days and is now tracking a per capita rate of 816 cases per 100,000.  This is much  higher than past rates and puts Teller into red territory. As of Friday, the county’s COVID website listed 823 positive cases, which marks nearly a 60-case hit in the last two days. The county is averaging a little more than 100 cases per week and needs to reduce this amount by about 25 percent to remain an orange county.


On the upside, the county has recorded a relatively low hospitalization rate and its COVID positivity percentage among those tested isn’t too bad.


Don’t Shut Down Society

Despite these grim statistics, elected leaders made a plea to not shut down businesses and develop sterner restrictions. Bob Campbell, the commission vice-chairman, stated that imposing more restrictions against business operations is not the answer. “It is not the way to control the virus by shutting down society,” said Campbell, in a clear message to state officials.


“I am not a fan of closing down businesses and commerce. It ruins peoples lives. You are destroying people’s lives. Real life happens.”


Campbell believes that the far majority of the COVID cases are not originating from the businesses targeted. He argued that imposing more restrictions and having closures produces a devastating impact on the local economy, turning some communities into ghost towns and practically wiping them off the map.


The Cripple Creek government, for example, could face serious financial headaches, if the casinos are forced to shut down.


The commissioners, though, stated that in their most recent meeting with state officials, their appeared to be a more cooperative attitude.


Commission Chairman Marc Dettenrieder echoed similar views, and maintained that officials are now fighting to protect two key industries impacted by the pending restrictions: casinos and restaurants. “We are pushing hard to push our case,” said the commission chairman.


He admitted that often their battle to maintain an orange designation is sometimes an uphill fight. “We will take what we can get,” said Dettenrieder. He said their most recent meeting gave the county another temporary reprieve in the orange zone, pending another conference with state officials.


What makes Teller officials extremely nervous is the rating of their neighbor, El Paso County, as Level Red territory. This prohibits indoor dining for restaurants in the lower Ute Pass, such as Green Mountain Falls, Cascade and Manitou Springs, and greatly reduces public gatherings. This has already produced a clobbering effect, as these eateries have been forced to do take-out or try to conduct outdoor-heated dining areas, a tough task in the winter.


If a worse-case scenario occurs and Teller enters the red zone, then officials may try to work to orchestrate the  newly-developing five-star Mesa County variance program, with guidance needed from the state.  This would allow the county to specify businesses that could operate at one  restriction level less than what is imposed in the county. For example, if the county gets a red rating,  certain businesses that qualify, such as restaurants and casinos, could still operate at the orange restriction-level, if they meet certain criteria and can demonstrate they are really complying with the orange rules.


However, the qualifying business operators would have to comply with many regulations and inquiries. Plus, the county would have to form a committee to handle applicants for these variances.


Decker said the county still hasn’t received the green light from the state for the program, along with the specific guidelines. She is expecting these rules shortly.


Truce Crafted Between Wommack Ministries and Teller County

Also, last week, the war of words between Andrew Wommack Ministries and the Teller County Commissioners, who act as the Board of Health, may have reached a partial end. An agreement was reached between the entities, with Wommack Ministries agreeing to hire a nurse to further evaluate COVID cases, such as contact tracing, and monitor potential coronavirus activity at their facility. The agreement also is aimed at defining the roles better for both entities. For several months, relations have been strained between Wommack Ministries and the county over the COVID rules.


With an operation as big as Wommack Ministries, Decker admitted that monitoring any response to COVID outbreaks is quite challenging.


“They would do all the investigations with contact tracing,” said the county administrator.


These would take much of the pressure off the Teller’s Department of Health.  Wommack Ministries was targeted as one of the main locales,  identified as an initial COVID outbreak area, last summer. Now, this list has been extended to about 15 places in Teller, including several local schools, two casinos, big box stores, daycare and animal hospitals and city governments.


“This is a step in the right direction,” said Commissioner Norm Steen, when describing the cooperative agreement between Andrew Wommack Ministries and Teller County.