County may submit variance request to state


By John Finefrock
Staff Writer

On Tuesday, the Archuleta County commissioners discussed possibly submitting a variance request to the state to have some local businesses reopen earlier, and with less strict rules than state orders.

“We don’t have a formal business coalition and committee for this. This is merely me having too much time on my hands and deciding we’re gonna push this thing forward,” said Jason Cox, co-owner of Riff Raff Brewing Company.

Cox has been leading the charge in putting together a variance application that will ultimately go to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for approval.

“We’re also thinking very thoughtfully about how we want our businesses to reopen responsibly so we can balance the public health and safety needs with economic needs and I think this is a good way for us to phase in our first steps,” he said.

Cox explained the steps that need to be taken before the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) can submit a variance request to the state.

He explained that, first, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe (SUIT) and the San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) need to sign off on the variance request and then it can be brought to the BoCC for a vote.

If the BoCC approves it, the variance request will then go to the CDPHE for final approval.

Commissioner Steve Wadley said he wouldn’t engage in discussion about the variance as he owns a restaurant in town.

“I own a restaurant in the community, so I’m not going to participate in any kind of discussion on this,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s proper for me to participate. I do have an economic impact in it and there’s no way for me to be an innocent bystander, so I’m just gonna stay mum.”

Commissioner Ron Maez explained he wanted “to move forward” on the variance application and explained why he wanted the Pagosa Springs Town Council to weigh in on the issue at its meeting last week.

“Most of the businesses and restaurants are within the town limits, so I thought it was important to have town council weigh in on this conversation,” he said.

Pagosa Springs Town Manager Andrea Phillips explained the town council was in favor of submitting the variance, though they weren’t required to, and didn’t vote on the variance issue at their meeting last week.

“As you know you don’t need really a formal vote from the town council, but they all are in favor of moving it forward because we understand that the cases are low here in Archuleta County and overall the community has really done a great job of helping to flatten the curve and ensuring that people are being safe,” she said.

In an email to The SUN Wednesday morning, Cox wrote that SUIT probably won’t offer a decision on whether or not to support the variance this week.

“… it is highly unlikely that their process will finish this week. They currently are reviewing our variance request, so that’s a good sign, and it’s a matter of going through all the proper entities to get it approved,” he wrote.

Cox reported Tuesday that SJBPH is currently reviewing the variance request.

According to CDPHE Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan, 44 of Colorado’s 64 counties have submitted variance requests to the state’s health orders and “14 or so” have been approved.

Mandating masks?

During the work session, Archuleta County Attorney Todd Weaver explained that at least one member of Durango City Council was considering passing a measure that would mandate masks be worn in public.

“City council itself had discussed the possibility of an order mandating face coverings,” he said. “I think they are getting … almost like requests from the business community that they feel they can’t require people coming into businesses to wear face masks and I would argue opposite of that. That ‘No shirts, no shoes, no mask, no service,’ you can refuse service to anyone so long as it’s not based on, like, race or sexual orientation, something like that. Other than that, absolutely they can.”

“I had a staff member of mine the other day ask about it and said he and his friends were discussing it and that there was a constitutional infringement to require a mask, and I said, ‘No, there’s absolutely not.’ I said, ‘As long as I’m not violating somebody’s liberty via race, sex etcetera, I can make whatever rules I want in my restaurant.’ If I own a supper club, for example, and you show up without a coat and tie, I can say, ‘We won’t serve you because that’s not what we do here,” Cox said.

“My own thing is I have a problem with government getting involved in your business,” Commissioner Ron Maez said about mandating masks. “I think it’s the business owner’s decision to set that rule and standard for what they see is important for their business or safe for their business. They need to make that decision.”

Phillips called a government mandate for citizens to wear masks in public “an enforcement nightmare.”

Where the variance stands

In a phone call just before press-time Wednesday, Cox explained the status of the variance.

He explained SJBPH is still reviewing it and will provide feedback, expected in the next week or so.

SUIT will most likely give a decision next week.

He noted the state recently released draft guidelines for restaurants to reopen, though no date has been set.

Cox reported the state’s guidelines call for 8 feet of space between tables at restaurants and the current draft of Archuleta County’s variance request asks for 6 feet.

“It’s better than I thought it would be,” he said, though noted the regulations are still “fairly rigorous.”

He said that he’s taking the state guidelines “under advisement” for what to include, or not, in the variance request.

Maez explained that once SUIT and SJBPH sign off on the variance request, he’ll call a special meeting for the BoCC to vote on it.