In a best-case scenario, most restrictions from Denver’s stay-at-home order could lift over the next two to four months, but the metro area is trending toward a longer haul than that, top city officials said in internal discussions this week.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, several department heads and other local medical experts discussed the city’s recovery efforts in a meeting Thursday attended by The Denver Post. Front and center was the question of timing for easing current restrictions while avoiding a relapse and managing the local economy.
“There was broad recognition around the room that coronavirus and its challenges won’t end with 2020,” Dr. Bill Burman, director of Denver Public Health, said in an interview. “All of us need to recognize that this is a marathon, this is not a sprint.”
The worst-case scenario combines a resurgence of the virus with global economic chaos and a local economy that’s slow to return, officials said. Stay-at-home restrictions would then be unwound far more gradually, though the precise period of time remains uncertain.
In the coming days a decision must be made on whether to extend the city’s stay-at-home order, which ends April 30, or to begin relaxing it, said Public Health Director Bob McDonald. That decision will also take into account the need to provide residents, businesses and industries with advance notice.
“We want to do it right; we don’t want to do it quickly,” McDonald told The Post. “We want to be balanced, with thoughtful decisions.”
The state’s stay-at-home order is currently scheduled to expire April 26, and Gov. Jared Polis said Wednesday that some social distancing measures will remain in place until there is a cure or vaccine. This new normal will last for many months to come, he said.
Partnering with regional governments as well as the state will be important for Denver, city officials agreed.
Denver won’t lift stay-at-home restrictions all at once, those at the meeting said. Even the word “lifted” might give residents the wrong impression of finality, one member of the group said, suggesting framing the move as a modification instead. Hancock noted that social distancing measures will remain in place longer than the stay-at-home order.
At stake is a balance between public health and the local economy, and the city must relax restrictions slowly and deliberately for the changes to stick, McDonald said.
Certainly, the current order is painful and costly. Protests against the statewide stay-at-home order are planned at the Colorado Capitol Sunday. But if the next steps aren’t handled carefully the crisis will be drawn out even longer, amounting to more cases of the virus and further economic damage, Burman said.
David Gaspers, principal city planner, led the Thursday discussion, which included possible scenarios for how the pandemic will play out.
In the best-case scenario, the number of cases in Denver remains stable or decreasing and the city’s hospitals have the space and equipment needed to care for critical patients, Gaspers said.
“The narrative there is the virus spread continues, but it remains stable and manageable, and the global economy is better than what we kind of expect,” he said in the meeting. “Most restrictions are lifted over the next two to four months, and the local economy is up and running.”
Then there’s the worst-case scenario, which looks a lot like what Denver has experienced for the last few weeks, Gaspers said.
That’s “where we’re expecting that resurgence to come and we’re preparing for that and the global economy is in chaos. Very unpredictable. Some restrictions remain. The local economy is very sluggish,” he said.
Much depends on the coming days and weeks, the group acknowledged. Gaspers discussed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization and California on what to look for before easing stay-at-home restrictions.
Those metrics include the number of virus cases and whether new cases are stable or decreasing; the capacity of health care systems like hospitals; whether new cases can be traced and tracked; whether schools, businesses and more have protective measures in place; and whether a vaccine or therapeutic treatment becomes available for the virus.
Solely following the number of virus cases is problematic because as tests become more widely available, the amount of cases is sure to rise. Rather, Burman suggested tracking the number of hospitalizations. But even then, Denver must follow multiple factors.
McDonald noted that the next steps must happen slowly — not simply to avoid an increase in spread but also because if too much changes at once and cases spike, officials will have a difficult time knowing which factor caused the problem.
City and health officials discussed waiting about four weeks between each step with daily monitoring along the way.
“COVID can move pretty broadly in a community if you’re not monitoring very carefully,” Burman said. “That’s certainly what happened in New York City and that’s certainly what happened in the mountain communities, was they had substantial spread before there was recognition.”
McDonald said it’s imperative that the city retain the ability to reimpose restrictions if cases begin to spike again.
“I’m sure it sounds slow to all of us, but I think it’s very much the prudent thing to do because I think everybody wants to avoid having to go back to really restrictive measures once we’ve relaxed them,” Burman said.
City officials did not settle on a specific plan during the meeting.
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