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Reopening Colorado: Sterling Correctional Facility Outbreak Complicates Logan County's Coronavirus Variance Request

STERLING, Colo. (CBS4) - "Stop treating us like Denver" is the message leaders in Logan County hope the state health department hears loud and clear. The county is one of many currently asking for a variance from the state's safer-at-home order, but has so far been unsuccessful.

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While local governments can enact stricter restrictions than the state on their own, they may seek a variance to loosen restrictions. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's website, applications must include documentation of a 14-day decline in cases and a suppression plan approved by the local health agency, all hospitals within the county and a majority of county commissioners. A spokesperson for CDPHE tells CBS4 the department uses several criteria to determine whether a county is eligible to loosen restrictions. They include the prevalence of infections, hospital capacity, and any proposed containment measures or proposed policies.

So far, the state has approved the requests of nine counties. Logan County is not one of them, and a big reason why is the Sterling Correctional Facility, which is home to one of the state's worst COVID-19 outbreaks.

"There are 448 cases in the Sterling Correctional Facility, and they told us that was the reason why they failed us," said Byron Pelton, one of three county commissioners.

According to state data, Logan County has recorded 488 positive cases, but more than 90% of them are at the correctional facility. County leaders argue the numbers aren't reflective of what's really happening in the county.

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"We felt like our community needs to be back open, our restaurants need to be back open, we need to save all the small businesses we possibly can because this is our community," said Pelton. "We know what's best to serve our community. CDPHE and the state, they don't know what's the best for out here in rural Colorado."

Logan County's proposal, which was signed off by the Northeast Colorado Health Department and Sterling Regional MedCenter, included opening up restaurants, the movie theater, and houses of worship to 30% capacity.

According to Pelton, the first application was returned to the county due to procedural issues. The county resubmitted, and the state responded last week.

In a response letter from CDPHE, which stated Logan County has the highest rate of COVID-19 in the state, the county was told reviewers "have some concerns about vulnerabilities," and want to "monitor the situation before further considering a variance."

The letter also cited the outbreak at the Department of Corrections-run facility in Sterling.

"While few cases have occurred outside of the facilities, the plan submitted raises concerns about whether cases will continue to increase in the community due to employee exposure," the letter read.

"The people of Logan County deserve better than to be treated like Denver, and that's exactly the way they feel like it right now," said Pelton. "It just feels like the governor and (Corrections head) Dean Williams have brought this upon our community and again, without local control we have no say over how we get open again."

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In downtown Sterling, restaurants like J & L Café are anxiously awaiting any type of relief. Owner John McMahon said he's worried about how long he can keep operating on just to-go orders.

"If this goes on another month, it might not make it, to be honest," McMahon said. "It's devastating."

McMahon is supportive of the commissioners' attempt to loosen restrictions and is hopeful they can find a plan suitable for the state.

"It's hard enough to make it in rural Colorado without this, and with this going on the whole town could collapse," he said.

A spokesperson for CDPHE tells CBS4 the department doesn't deny variances, but instead offers feedback for improving and resubmitting.

Pelton said the county updated its request and resubmitted it last Friday.

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