Teller County Granted Variance From Safer-At-Home Order, But Request to Open Casinos Denied

Fifteen Colorado counties have applied for and received a variance from the state’s ‘Safer-At-Home’ quarantine order. Teller County became number 16 on May 22, with a twist. County officials didn’t want to just open restaurants and shops. They wanted the Cripple Creek casinos to be able to open again.

That’s where things got complicated, as Colorado does not have guidelines yet for reopening casinos. As a result, while the variance was approved, Teller’s request to include casinos was rejected. 

“At this time, bars and casinos are not allowed to open,” said the May 22 approval letter from the health department. “The State of Colorado will be issuing guidance around casinos soon.” 

There were also some issues with the county’s submission, as it doesn’t appear to match the current situation. In the submitted documents and in the state’s May 22 response, it refers to 16 confirmed cases in Teller. However in the May 13 public update from Teller’s Health Department, there are 31 cases mentioned. 

“As of today, May 13, 2020, the Teller County Case Count is: 31 Confirmed cases, 2 deaths,” the Teller Health Department statement says. 

Also, the remainder of the argument wasn’t simply a scientific one. Instead, Teller County claimed it’s necessary to open casinos in order to prevent violence from breaking out. In a May 8 application to the Colorado Department of Public Health, Teller County officials argue that the state’s quarantine order caused an increase in violent crimes. They point to the fact there were five assaults in Teller from Jan. 1 to March 8. Once the shutdowns and ‘stay at home’ requests started on March 9, that number grew. From March 9 to May 6, there were nine assaults in the county as well as a murder-suicide. 

Last week, officials from around the state, including Cripple Creek, gave presentations in front of the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission in which they detailed the economic hardships the area is facing due to the casino closures. Cripple Creek Finance Director Paul Harris said the city had been turned “into a ghost town” since the mid-March order closing casinos in Colorado.

State Signs Off For Teller County

Despite the questions, state officials approved the variance request, excluding casinos. Teller County’s request allows all restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and places of worship to reopen. 

When asked about the guidelines for a variance, officials from the governor’s office directed us to the Colorado Joint Information Center. They provided us with a list of guidelines. In order to be considered for a variance, counties have to meet all of these requirements. First, the county has to show COVID-19 is under control. That means either providing data that they have a low number of cases or that the county has a downward trajectory of cases within a 14-day period. As of May 22, Teller had 31 confirmed COVID-19 cases. It’s nowhere near as bad as Denver County, which has 4,656, but it still stands as 28th in the state. There are 36 counties with fewer cases than Teller. State officials said Teller’s data and infrastructure met the necessary requirements. 

“The data and information included in your request demonstrates that Teller County has only had sixteen confirmed COVID-19 cases, and has a disease prevention and response system that includes ongoing testing, disease investigation and contact tracing as needed, and ongoing public education,” health department officials said. “Additionally, while no hospital facility in Teller County has ICU beds, patients are routinely transferred to Colorado Springs hospitals for necessary care. Teller County has had 2 COVID-19 cases in the last two week or a 2 week incidence rate of approximately 8 per 100,000.”  

So What Does This Mean? 

While this is great for the businesses that can reopen, what about casinos? We reached out to a variety of people in the health department, governor’s office and other parts of Colorado’s government. The response we got was that Colorado is not ready yet to reopen casinos. First they need a plan in place. Also, state officials cautioned that while Teller’s variance was approved, it could easily be removed. 

“If the County’s threshold of 15 more cases in a week occurs, then this variance is automatically rescinded,” the health department’s May 22 letter states. “Additionally, CDPHE reserves the right to modify or rescind this variance approval as circumstances warrant.” 

Colorado officials question if now is a good time to open casinos, as the total number of COVID-19 cases stand at 23,964 as of May 22. Also, new cases continue to rise. On May 23, 499 new cases were reported, the state’s highest number since May 9. Based on current data, new cases see a large spike every two weeks and health officials expect another large spike due to the Memorial Day weekend. As a result, places like bars and casinos where it’s hard to practice social distancing remain closed. Until Colorado health officials develop a plan as to what guidelines reopened casinos would have to follow, they have to remain closed. And while variances will be approved for other businesses, state officials want to be cautious with larger operations like casinos. 

About the Author

Brian Carlton

Brian Carlton is an award-winning journalist who has covered casinos, the gaming and finance industries for more than a decade. His work has been published by the BBC and a variety of newspapers across the U.S.