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Aspen and other ski towns thought coronavirus tests would help them reopen. Instead they caused confusion.

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By Christie Aschwanden, Kaiser Health News

Aspen was an early COVID-19 hot spot in Colorado, with a cluster of cases in March linked to tourists visiting for its world-famous skiing. Tests were in short supply, making it difficult to know how the virus was spreading.

So in April, when the Pitkin County Public Health Department announced it had obtained 1,000 COVID-19 antibody tests that it would offer residents at no charge, it seemed like an exciting opportunity to evaluate the efforts underway to stop the spread of the virus.

“This test will allow us to get the epidemiological data that we’ve been looking for,” Aspen Ambulance District director Gabe Muething said during an April 9 community meeting held online.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
  • TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • WRITE ON, COLORADO: Tell us your coronavirus stories.
  • STORY: As Colorado businesses reopen, coronavirus-related workers’ compensation claims are piling up

>> FULL COVERAGE

However, the plan soon fell apart amid questions about the reliability of the test from Aytu BioScience. Other ski towns such as Telluride and Jackson, Wyoming, as well as the less wealthy border community of Laredo, Texas, were also drawn to antibody testing to inform decisions about how to exit lockdown. But they, too, determined the tests weren’t living up to their promise.

The allure of antibody tests is understandable. Although they can’t find active cases of COVID-19, they can identify people who previously have been infected with the coronavirus that causes the disease, which could give health officials important epidemiological information about how widely it has spread in a community and the extent of asymptomatic cases. In theory, at least, antibodies would be present in such people whether they had a severe case, little more than a dry cough or no complaints at all.

Even more enticing: These tests were billed as a path to restart local economies by identifying people who might be immune to the virus and could therefore safely return to the public sphere.

But, in these and other communities, testing programs initially slated to test hundreds or thousands have been scaled back or put on hold.

“I don’t think these tests are ready for clinical use yet,” said University of California-San Francisco immunologist Dr. Alexander Marson, who has studied their reliability. He and his team vetted 12 different antibody tests and found all but one turned up false positives — implying that someone had antibodies when they didn’t ― with false-positive rates reaching as high as 16%. (The study is preliminary and has not been peer-reviewed yet.)

More than 100 antibody tests are currently available in the U.S., including offerings by commercial labs, academic centers and small entrepreneurial ventures. As serious questions emerged earlier this month about the accuracy of the tests and the usefulness of the results, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it will require companies to submit validation data on their products and apply for emergency-use authorizations for their products. (Previously, companies were allowed to sell their tests without review from the FDA, as long as they did their own validation and included a disclaimer.) And the American Medical Association said on May 14 that the tests should not be used to assess an individual’s immunity or when to end physical distancing.

And this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new guidelines warning that antibody test results can have high false positive rates and should not be used to make decisions about returning people to work, schools, dorms or other places where people congregate.

Once hailed as a solution, the current crop of tests, which have not been thoroughly vetted by any regulatory agency, now seem more likely to add chaos and uncertainty to a situation already fraught with anxiety. “To give people a false sense of security has a lot of danger right now,” said Dr. Travis Riddell, the health officer for Teton County, which includes Jackson, Wyoming.

Accuracy questions raised

The gold standard for confirming an active COVID-19 infection is to take a swab from the nasopharynx and test it for the presence of viral RNA. The antibody tests instead parse the blood for antibodies against the COVID-19 virus. It takes time for an infected person to produce antibodies, so these tests can’t diagnose an ongoing infection, only indicate that a person has encountered the virus.

In Aspen, county officials knew the FDA had not approved the Aytu BioScience test, which the Colorado-based company was importing from China. So they first conducted their own validation tests, said Bill Linn, spokesperson for the Pitkin County Incident Management Team. “We weren’t reassured enough by our own testing to feel like we should move ahead.”

In Laredo, officials had been told by one of the community members helping to arrange the purchase of 20,000 tests from the Chinese company Anhui DeepBlue Medical Technology that they were FDA-approved, but the city’s own validation trials revealed only about a 20% accuracy rate, said Laredo spokesperson Rafael Benavides. Before Laredo could pay for the tests, Benavides said, an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement seized them and launched an investigation.

Neither Anhui DeepBlue Medical Technology, nor Aytu returned requests for comment.

In March, Covaxx, a company led by two part-time Telluride residents, offered to test residents of the town and the surrounding county with an antibody test it had developed. But the project was suspended indefinitely when the company’s testing facility fell behind on processing them.

The county is committed to doing a second round of testing but is evaluating how to proceed, San Miguel County spokeswoman Susan Lilly said. “The question is how do you target it to be the most relevant clinically and for the public health team’s decision-making moving forward?”

Officials back off, community members step in

On May 4, the FDA updated its antibody test policy to require that manufacturers submit validation data, but it is still allowing the tests to be sold without the normal lengthy vetting and approval process, which includes demonstrating safety and effectiveness.

In some wealthy areas, government officials had been offering free tests from startups with local investors. In Jackson, for example, a venture capitalist with an investment in Covaxx, the test used in Telluride, offered to help the city obtain 1,000 tests. But after reviewing the offer, Teton County declined over concerns about the test’s accuracy. “If a person tests positive, what does that mean? And is that useful information? We just don’t know yet,” Riddell said.

Covaxx spokesman John Schaefer said in a statement that the test had been validated on more than 900 blood samples and is being reviewed by the FDA.

After Teton County officials decided against community antibody testing, a private nonprofit, Test Teton Now, sprung up to provide free COVID-19 antibody testing using the Covaxx test for roughly 8,000 people, about a third of the county’s residents. As of May 22, they’d raised $396,000 and tested 843 samples. The group has “done a lot” to verify the Covaxx tests, Test Teton Now president Shaun Andrikopoulos said. “I don’t want to call it validation, because we didn’t go through an independent review board, but we have sent our samples out to other labs.”

Organizers of Test Teton Now don’t share others’ concerns about the test’s utility. “We don’t encourage people to make any decisions about what they’re going to do or how they’re going to behave based on the results,” said the nonprofit’s spokesperson, Jennifer Ford.

What good is a test that can’t be used for practical purposes? “We think knowledge is power, and data is the beginning of knowledge,” Ford said. But unreliable data doesn’t give knowledge, it gives an illusion of knowledge.

So many unknowns remain, and false data may be worse than none. Even a very accurate test will produce a large number of false positives when used in a population where few people have been infected. If only 4% of people have actually been infected, a test with 95% accuracy would produce nine positive results for every 100 tests, five of which are false positives.

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And that creates a danger that the tests could lead people to incorrectly think that they have antibodies that make them immune, which could have disastrous consequences if they changed their behavior as a result. Consider, for example, a person falsely told she had antibodies going to work at a nursing home, believing she couldn’t catch or spread the virus to anyone.

It’s not even known for sure that having antibodies makes someone immune. Researchers are hopeful that exposure can confer some level of immunity, but how strong that immunity might be and how long it might last remain unknown, said Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch.

So, having been burned once, Aspen has put antibody testing on hold and is instead focusing on identifying and isolating people who are sick or at risk of becoming so. “It’s actually a step back to where we started,” Linn said.

Given the remaining unknowns about immunity and COVID-19, the best methods for addressing the pandemic in communities may be the most time-tested ones, Linn said. “Put the sick people in places where they can’t get anyone else sick. It’s the bread and butter of epidemiology.”

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Colorado offers $4.1 million to cities that use pavement for people, not cars as part of coronavirus recovery

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Across Colorado, communities large and small are diverting cars around main streets to allow more open-air, socially-distanced dining, shopping and strolling.

And now the state is stepping in with a new $4.1 million grant program to encourage more creative uses for public streets as businesses revive after the pandemic shutdown.

Denver, Boulder, Littleton, Louisville, Arvada, Frisco, Breckenridge, Carbondale, Erie, Fort Collins and Estes Park are among the first municipalities to experiment with shifting pavement built for cars to pedestrian-only pockets. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
  • TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • WRITE ON, COLORADO: Tell us your coronavirus stories.
  • STORY: Coronavirus is killing fewer Colorado nursing home residents, but officials warn the state hasn’t “turned a corner”

>> FULL COVERAGE

Gov. Jared Polis’s new multi-agency Can Do Colorado Community Challenge — announced Thursday amidst a flurry of initiatives — is championing those kinds of community efforts with grants that support safer workplaces, more open restaurants and easier remote working. 

Other state agencies involved in the challenge include the departments of labor, local affairs, regulatory affairs, public health, the Regional Air Quality Council, the Denver Regional Council of Governments and the Colorado Energy Office, all working to maintain progress made during the pandemic on issues like traffic and air quality. The agencies are offering a variety of grants, from a $500,000 program that offers e-bikes and e-scooters to low-income workers to commuting incentives for workers and employers that could improve air quality.

The Colorado Department of Transportation is providing “small-scale grants” to cities and towns that can quickly convert parking spots and roads into plazas, using money available in the state’s Multi Modal Options Fund. The agency also is offering micro grants up to $5,000 for communities that promote telework to reduce commuter traffic on local roads.

“The blanket learning we can take from this is that government and business are serious about reprioritizing street spaces for all these different reasons and the effect is that people biking and people walking are just as welcome as people in cars,” said Piep van Hueven with Bicycle Colorado. 

Bicycle Colorado’s Denver Street Partnership in April surveyed 1,400 Denver residents and found the pandemic stirring a growing focus on walking and biking in the city. Nearly 90% of respondents said the city should reallocate street space for people and they suggested more than 200 stretches of downtown streets for closures and bike lanes, many around Capitol Hill. 

The shift away from cars in public space is coming as businesses reopen under strict guidelines for keeping customers spaced 6 feet apart. That’s pushed cafes onto sidewalks and tables into parking lots. 

CDOT communications director Matt Inzeo said the agency is working with different communities coming up with ideas for temporarily changing public spaces built for cars. For example, he pointed to Estes Park considering an adjustment to U.S. 34 through downtown, Fort Collins exploring business and restaurant space in diagonal parking spots and Breckenridge closing its entire Main Street to cars and routing traffic around downtown. 

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“The look of this may vary from one community to another,” said Inzeo, who expects CDOT will award “lots of smaller grants” to help communities pay for traffic barriers, paint and staff planning expenses.  “As for bike lanes, there could be a scenario where they come into play but the conversations so far are focused on expanded public spaces near commercial centers.”

For the growing community of biking and pedestrian advocates who have spent the last decade pushing for a better balance of cars and people in local public space, CDOT’s turn toward community-focused space is a welcome opportunity. If pedestrian-friendly streetscapes bustling with outdoor diners and shoppers prove successful, many hope the shift could be more than temporary.  

CDOT is able to do this for communities on U.S. highways based on a temporary waiver from the federal government, Inzeo said, noting that some changes may not be permanent but adjustments made on city and town streets could last longer based on local support.

“This is an exciting experiment to see in real life what happens when you are able to repurpose street space for public space that doesn’t include cars,” said Morgan Lommele, the director of state and local policy for People For Bikes. “What if we are able to use the current circumstance to find shared values and understand there is very likely enough room for cars even if we take cars off select street to expand other types of access to public places?”

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Recovering from coronavirus may not be such a struggle for some Colorado downtowns after all

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As coronavirus safety measures forced many shops and restaurants to temporarily close in March, a private Facebook group popped up to connect business owners specifically in downtown Colorado Springs. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Known cases in Colorado.
  • TESTING: Here’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • WRITE ON, COLORADO: Tell us your coronavirus stories.
  • STORY: Coronavirus is killing fewer Colorado nursing home residents, but officials warn the state hasn’t “turned a corner”

>> FULL COVERAGE

There, they traded resources and information, discussed what each was doing to survive and talked about how the city could help local restaurants and retailers, like speeding up the permitting process to allow for sidewalk dining. Owners shared what they financially needed and soon learned that $650,000 in grants were made available to downtown shops and restaurants. The group’s creators? The Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs.

“Their ability to bring everybody into a conversation together in multiple ways blew me away,” said Morgan Calderini, co-owner of Ladyfingers Letterpress, a stationary and gift store on East Bijou Street. “I have business owner friends in other towns and no one had this support we saw from the Downtown Partnership.”

Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The rallying efforts of the nonprofit downtown agency is one of many factors credited with getting Colorado Springs business owners through the worst of the coronavirus disruptions. It’s a sentiment echoed in other downtowns around the state where similar partnerships spent the stay-at-home period organizing virtual events and gift-card purchases, while promoting the spirit of buying local. A promotion offering a $10 gift card to shoppers who spent $25 (now at $50) at downtown businesses in Grand Junction helped spur $70,000 in spending, according to Grand Junction downtown officials. 

Of course, it’s not over yet. And it didn’t work for everyone. Some, like Iron Bird Brewing Co. in Colorado Springs, called it quits in early May. In downtown Denver, some shops remain boarded up, waiting on office workers and other customers to feel safe enough to return. Hotels continue to keep staff furloughed. Surviving the coronavirus disruption may be the most challenging experience any downtown organization will face because of its suddenness and effect on all commerce, not like past financial downturns affecting core industries. 

Iron Bird Brewing in downtown Colorado Springs announced May 6, 2020 it was closing permanently due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Officials in other Colorado downtowns shared reasons for their optimism and why their urban center will make it through. Denver officials pointed to the strong momentum going into the pandemic with high employment, an influx of new companies moving to the city. In Grand Junction, director Brandon Stam said his town is in a more remote area and has attracted people from larger cities seeking a less crowded, more affordable place to live. 

“Most of the big capital projects are still underway and they’re still going on,” Stam said. “In a weird way I think we’re pretty well set up to recover.”

Colorado Springs fits in between those two, entering the pandemic with a slew of construction projects that continued to progress in the past two months. In downtown there are two sports stadiums, about a dozen apartment buildings and three hotels under construction. The new U.S. Olympic Museum is still expected to open this summer, or maybe fall. 

“None of them are finished or were scheduled to be finished. All of them are funded already,” said Mike Juran, CEO of automotive tech company Altia, which moved its headquarters to downtown in the past year. “And nobody’s pulling funding back, and all of the construction has been considered essential business. We’ve got cranes down here, more cranes than we’ve ever had. They’re not slowing down. And the hope is, when they open, people will start traveling again.”

The Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC will be the primary tenant of a multi-use stadium now under construction in south downtown Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The financial appeal of downtowns 

As downtowns in Colorado reported their annual updates in May, COVID addendums were added at the last minute. For Denver, the Downtown Partnership cautioned that tourism, which accounts for $800 million in annual visitor spending, had ground to a halt. Permits for new projects had dropped 11% this year as of April, compared to the same period of last year. And the value of projects had fallen 32%.

But before the pandemic hit full force, the city had 23 major projects under construction, added 11,000 new residents in the past year and grew retail sales and sales-tax collection by 8.2% — “the largest annual increase since 2014.”

“We had record levels of employment, record levels of visitors, record levels of residential population is really virtually every economic indicator you can imagine in downtown, we were setting records. If there was a way to go into sort of an economic recession, caused by the pandemic, we were fit, we were strong, we were as well prepared as humanly possible,” said Randy Thelen, senior vice president for economic development at the Downtown Denver Partnership.

Businesses in downtown Denver have been boarded up in the wake of recent protests against police violence. June 9, 2020. Larry Ryckman / The Colorado Sun

Besides cleaning crews power washing surfaces regularly and cleaning touchable surfaces every other hour, Thelen said the downtown agency is rethinking events. Canceled are massive ones, like “A Taste of Colorado” over Labor Day weekend. But smaller, more dispersed activities to “give people a moment of joy at multiple places around the core of our city” are being planned, he said.

Financial research firm Moody’s Analytics ranked Denver among the nation’s top 10 “best positioned to recover” from COVID.

“Just (Tuesday night), I walked through Larimer Square, which is a great retail street in downtown Denver, and just eyeballing it, the outdoor cafe spaces looked to be about 80-90% occupied,” he said. “People want to get back to their favorite restaurants, they want to get back into downtown but they want to do so safely.”

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Museum under construction in downtown Colorado Springs June 10, 2020. The opening of the museum has been delayed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The story’s a little different in Colorado Springs, which also touted 2019 as one of its best years ever in its annual report. But it had taken the city a long time to get downtown to this point, said Susan Edmondson, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Downtown Partnership.

“In the recession of 2008, what we were lacking then is something we’ve lacked for a long time that we’re changing, and that’s lots of people living downtown,” Edmondson said. “That was one of the big things that held back our downtown recovery. We know it’s so important for our shops and restaurants, they need people living near them.”

Nine multifamily projects have been announced for downtown that will add 1,250 new places to live within three years. That will have a dramatic impact on downtown residents, which number around 2,000, a 14% increase since 2010. 

Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Juran, who lives downtown and now bikes to Altia’s downtown office, said he expects office workers to return soon. About 40 employees who usually work at the downtown office are still working at their homes. But folks are anxious to return, he said. 

“We started a couple of new employees last week, we had a new intern team start a couple of weeks ago and they’re not getting the benefit of the face-to-face experience,” he said. “The existing relationships with all of our employees have been really good so we have this level of trust, we’ve been able to use meetings like Zoom and GoTo. It’s been OK for now, but we’re going to definitely go back.”

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More changes expected

More than a week after police brutality protests occurred in cities nationwide including in Colorado Springs, the Downtown Partnership in Colorado Springs posted a statement this week on its homepage that systemic racism must end. It pledged to channel efforts “toward sustained progress for true justice and equity for all.” 

“Downtown is the front porch to the city, which is where we come to speak, if you will, in the public square and call for changes to society,” said Edmondson, with the Downtown Partnership. “We respect those who do it peacefully and we absolutely believe this can be done peacefully and these voices need to be heard.”

She said that the conversations must continue, plus a plan of action. She said many of the downtown businesses want to figure this out together.

Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I’ve been really gratified that many of our businesses have really leaned into this as well and whether it was providing water for demonstrators, or just making clear that there’s a safe space that they’re welcome to come,” she said. “Our businesses knew this is an important conversation to have.”

Over at Wild Goose Meeting House, a coffee and casual food cafe on North Tejon Street, the changes are welcome, said Russ Ware, who started the neighborhood hangout with business partner Yemi Mobolade. 

“The cultural upheaval that’s happening which, thank God I’m 100% for it, this is the most important thing that’s probably going to happen in my lifetime,” Ware said. “I thought it was going to be getting through this virus. And now I’ve figured out, oh no it’s not. We might actually finally turn a major corner with racial justice in this country.”

Wild Goose Meeting House in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to dine-in with new guidelines and expanded outdoor seating. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Ware’s used to change. The meeting house started in 2013 as a coffeeshop that sold some food. It quickly evolved into a restaurant that sold coffee and offered live entertainment on some nights. As coronavirus shut the place down in March, Ware focused on sister restaurant, Good Neighbors Meeting House, located in a more residential neighborhood in the northern outskirts of downtown. He turned it into a food market where you can still buy a 1-pound block of Muenster cheese for $5.

Wild Goose reopened four weeks later and added its own food market and to-go orders, which it had never offered before. As restaurants were allowed to partially reopen to in-person dining in late May, Ware tried something new: Wild Goose began taking prepaid reservations for people who just wanted to bring their laptop in and work outside of their home.

“As things ramped up, that’s kind of the biggest shift we did there and we’re only a couple weeks into it, but it’s going really well,” said Ware, who hopes to adopt prepaid reservations when they can start hosting jazz nights again. “You know, we’ve never even taken reservations here, much less this novel idea of prepaid reservations. What coffee shop even has reservations? So, it’s kind of crazy.”

Wild Goose Meeting House in downtown Colorado Springs has re-opened to dine-in with new guidelines and expanded outdoor seating. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wild Goose is lucky to have its own outdoor patio with 11 tables. But Ware is also supportive of blocking the streets from vehicle traffic to allow other restaurants without patios to expand their outdoor space. 

“Maybe we can create zones where different restaurants and bars share areas where they can carry beer out into the middle of Tejon Street,” Ware said. “Maybe they got something from Jose Muldoon’s and they’re sitting next to somebody that got something from Mood Tapas bar or whatever. A kind of glorified outdoor food court.”

It’s that sort of local support that seems woven into this downtown community, a sentiment you don’t usually find in shopping centers filled with national retailers and chain restaurants. Even online, business neighbors support one another. Earlier this week, a Wild Goose post on Facebook encouraged its fans to head over to Ladyfingers Letterpress to buy Black Lives Matter posters.

Morgan Calderini, left, and Arley Torsone are co-owners of Ladyfingers Letterpress in downtown Colorado Springs. The store has re-opened to walk-in customers with new social distancing guidelines. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Calderini, who owns and operates the Ladyfingers Letterpress store with wife and designer/illustrator Arley-Rose Torsone, said the couple put the mortgage on their house on hold and on forbearance and paused every single bill they could. They weren’t eligible for one of the forgivable federal Paycheck Protection loans because the company had an existing loan from the Small Business Administration. They did get a $15,000 grant from the downtown Small Business Relief Fund, which was funded by a downtown tax program and donations from several private businesses. It doled out $650,000 to 95 downtown businesses

“I feel like it’s hopefully brought a greater awareness to people that where you’re shopping is what you’re supporting,” Calderini said. “For us, what we have been so grateful for is that the community here came out and continued to come out. They may not need a candle but they are buying one and they’re supporting us because they want us in the community.”

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In final hours of legislative session, Colorado Democrats drop bill to raise cigarette taxes, create nicotine tax

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Democrats in the Colorado legislature on Thursday introduced an 11th-hour bill that seeks to ask voters in November to raise taxes on cigarettes and start taxing other products that contain nicotine.

House Bill 1427 would ask voters to gradually — but significantly — raise the taxes over the next seven fiscal years.

Whereas taxes on a pack of cigarettes are now 84 cents, the bill would ask voters to allow the state to raise that amount to $1.94 starting next year. Starting in July 2024, taxes on a pack of cigarettes would then rise to $2.24 a pack. Then in July 2027 and moving forward, the taxes would be $2.64 a pack.

Nicotine products, including vaping devices and fuel, would be taxed at 50% of their manufacturer’s list price starting next year if voters sign off. Starting in July 2024, that would rise to 56% of the list price. Then in July 2027 and moving forward, the taxes would be 62% of nicotine products’ market list price

Vaping products aren’t currently taxed in Colorado.

The bill was introduced Thursday, a day before the legislature was originally supposed to adjourn after returning for three weeks following a two-month-plus coronavirus pause. It appears lawmaking will stretch into the weekend now in order to accommodate House Bill 1427 and other last-minute legislation.

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The measure was introduced with such haste that its 43 pages of text hadn’t been posted on the legislature’s website before it was scheduled for its first committee hearing on Thursday afternoon.

Another sign of how fast it was introduced: Despite its wide-ranging impacts, only two people showed up to testify on the bill during the 20-minute hearing. They both advocated for the measure.

“I know that it’s all come kind of fast and furious,” Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat who is leading the push for the bill, said during the hearing.

Legislative fiscal analysts believe the proposed tax hike would net the state about $86 million in the 2020-21 fiscal year, which begins in July. In the following fiscal year, the state would collect more than $173 million.

State Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillion Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill, said she hopes the bill will help bolster the state’s ailing budget, which has taken a major hit as a result of the coronavirus crisis. At first, revenue generated by the taxes will go toward backfilling the state’s coffers.

After that, revenue from the taxes would be distributed to fund health care, tobacco education, preschool and other programs.

If voters approve the tax increase, it will start being enforced in 2021.

Supporters of the measure say it will help drive down tobacco use.

The bill passed its first hurdle, the House Finance Committee, within about 20 minutes and on a 6-to-5 vote. Republicans voiced opposition to the speed at which it was released.

 “We got this bill after we even sat down in here. It’s 43 pages. I just can’t support it right know. It sounds good but I just can’t support it right now,” said Rep. Janice Rich, a Grand Junction Republican.

The bill comes after a similar attempt to ask voters to raise cigarette taxes and enact a nicotine tax last year failed. Democrats in the Colorado Senate rejected the bill in the final days of the 2019 lawmaking term, in part because of concerns that it was regressive.

Last year’s legislation had the support of Gov. Jared Polis. The tobacco industry lobbied heavily against the measure.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

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