Virus Outbreak Colorado

Colorado Governor Jared Polis puts on his face mask after a news conference about the state's rapid increase in coronavirus cases Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Denver. As in the rest of the nation, Colorado officials are dealing with a steep increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in the past month.

Fifteen Colorado counties, including Denver and several of its neighbors, will face new levels of public health restrictions, including prohibitions on indoor dining, as the coronavirus explodes across the state and threatens to overwhelm the state's health care system.

Gov. Jared Polis didn't name the counties during a Tuesday afternoon press conference; they were released early Tuesday evening. In a tweet, the state Department of Public Health and Environment wrote that the new risk category for the counties, the creation of which stopped many of them qualifying for stay-at-home orders, would take effect Nov. 20.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock confirmed the state's capital would be included. A spokeswoman for the Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment said the city was in the process of writing new orders and that the state restrictions wouldn't be implemented until Friday at the earliest. According to the list released by the state, neighboring Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Douglas, Broomfield, Jefferson and Clear Creek would also fall into the new category and would face renewed restrictions.

Under the tighter restrictions, indoor dining will be prohibited, though take-out and outdoor dining will still be available. Gym capacity will be further limited, Polis said. According to a chart provided by the state, the new restrictions will also include:

  • prohibitions on personal gatherings of any size;
  • recommendation that high school students learn in a hybrid or remote model;
  • prohibitions on outdoor dining with anyone other than those in your immediate household;
  • requirement that last call for alcohol sales be instituted at 8 p.m.;
  • further restrictions on the number of people who can work within an office building or environment.

The new restrictions don't levy any new requirements on schools; indeed, they recommend that students through fifth grade should continue with in-person learning. In a statement, the Colorado Education Association said it was "disappointed" that Polis advocated those younger students remain in school.

"As community spread increases, it becomes increasingly difficult for schools to maintain appropriate staffing levels to remain open," the association's president, Amie Baca-Oehlert, said. "School districts across Colorado are putting forth valiant efforts to safely remain open for in-person learning, but they are facing tremendous barriers on a daily basis."

The governor did not announce a shelter-in-place order for. Instead, he unveiled a new, "severe" risk category for those counties who otherwise would've likely faced a shutdown order. Just a month ago, most of Colorado's counties were in the middle tier of restrictions. Now, more than half are in what would previously be the second-highest level of restrictions, with only a shutdown order left to fallback to. 

Many counties have caseloads -- specifically, the two-week cumulative incident rate -- that would, under the state's own guidelines, require a shelter-in-place order. Instead, the state Department of Public Health and Environment created a new category in the state's "dial."

"We need to reach deep in that reservoir we have and show our resolve," Polis said.

The state's previous set of categories each had qualifying thresholds. If a county had over 15% percent, for instance, it would be at risk of a shelter-in-place order; similar metrics included new cases and how many residents were sick per 100,000. But under the new changes, there is no case threshold for a shelter-in-place order; such a measure would be implemented if hospitals were primed to be overrun. 

Sonia Riggs, the CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said in a statement that the "new restrictions are going to be catastrophic for this industry."

"According to our most recent survey, we could lose 24% of the restaurants in counties entering this new Severe Risk level in less than a month," he said. "This feels like an especially difficult blow considering there is little evidence tying dining to surging cases - most spread is happening in private gatherings. If we want our restaurants to survive, they need significant cash help."

She asked the state, the legislature for which will meet in a special session to address the pandemic, to provide further relief for the industry.

Polis added that he would be "surprised" if any counties were placed on lockdown in the next week. He said that there was evidence that these new measures work and that the state wouldn't undertake them otherwise.

Tammy Vigil, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, called the changes a "balanced approach" by the state.

"Close coordination between state and local governments is essential, and we appreciate the State’s collaborative approach in developing this new level," she said in an email. "While we evaluate implementation of this new dial level, we urge everyone to follow the public health orders that are in place to keep themselves and their families safe, and to get the spread of this virus in our community back under control."

Despite mitigation efforts in several parts of the state, particularly in the Denver area, cases have infections have continued a sharp rise. It's unclear why officials believe this latest incremental approach will work, when others, including a curfew in Denver, have failed. With the state's hospital system on the brink, there appears to be little runway left to address the situation.

A message sent to Polis's office immediately after the press conference was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Hospitalizations have surpassed their spring peak and continue climbing, to the point that more and more facilities -- nearly one in three -- are reporting that they're facing staff shortages.

One ICU nurse within UCHealth told the Denver Gazette on Tuesday that the situation now is far worse than in the spring and that she is now pushing 90-hour workweeks. UCHealth, one of the largest hospital systems in the state, had 333 COVID patients as of Tuesday; that's a 10% growth within just 24 hours and again sets a new high for the system.

In the past month, Denver has further limited capacity in various public settings; required that people wear masks even when outdoors; and instituted a 10 p.m. closure order for bars and restaurants, among other things. But instead of curtailing the spread, Denver is averaging nearly 600 new cases of the virus per day, far higher than in the spring. 

Polis said one in 58 people in Adams County are sick, as are in one in 64 people in Denver; one in 83 people in Arapahoe County; and one in 110 people statewide.

He repeatedly said the virus now is more dangerous -- and the chances of catching it higher -- than at any point in the pandemic's nine-month existence.

Colorado Politics reporter Alayna Alvarez contributed to this report.