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Denver Mayor Michael Hancock speaks in a press conference on Oct. 16, 2020. 

With cases of COVID-19 soaring in the past month, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced stricter mask-wearing and group gathering rules on Friday with hopes of stemming the spread.

Effective immediately, face coverings will be required in all outdoor settings with a few exceptions, among them being outside alone or with a household member. Organized athletic programming will also be exempt. The second order will cut the number of unrelated people allowed to gather together in half, from 10 to 5, in both public and private gatherings, non-organized athletic events and workplace settings, such as meetings.

In restaurant settings, 10 unrelated people will still be allowed to sit together because the activity falls under the state's public health orders, which require restaurants to have protective rules in place, such as requiring face coverings except when seated. Those safeguards don't exist in unregulated settings, such as parks.    

The mask rules will be in place until further notice, and the gatherings order will be in effect through Nov. 16. 

"With the holidays on the horizon, we must take these additional steps over the next 30 days and knuckle down together to do the hard work that needs to be done so we can all enjoy this upcoming holiday season," Hancock said, adding that regional leaders should take similar steps to help.

The city and state are seeing a “third wave” of COVID-19, health officials warn, following a second spike in July. Denver's case rates are now higher than they've ever been, said Bob McDonald, executive director of Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment. 

As of Thursday, Denver saw an average of 265 new coronavirus cases over the past two weeks, more than triple the rate of new cases in early September.

At the start of the week, the city’s seven-day case average was 127, higher than the peak of 126 cases in late April. Hospitalization rates in Denver have also increased over the past several weeks. On Monday, the city said its seven-day average of hospitalizations was 174, a 37% increase from the week earlier. 

Hancock also said earlier this week that the city’s positivity rate sits between 4% and 4.5%. If that rate surpasses 5%, it would mean “a great deal of trouble” for Denver, he said, possibly forcing the city to scale back its reopening efforts and limit its capacity at local businesses.

The troubling trend prompted Denver Public Schools to announce this week that its middle- and high-school students will stick with remote learning into November. 

Meanwhile, Colorado on Monday reported nearly 970 new cases, and the state’s test positivity rate passed the 5% benchmark. Gov. Jared Polis this week extended the statewide mask order by another 30 days and granted a waiver for "certain indoor activities that take place for a limited time period if such activities cannot practically or safely be performed while wearing a mask."

Health officials at the national, state and local level continue to urge the use of face masks, frequent hand-washing and social distancing to slow the spread in the absence of a vaccine. 

"This is how we keep our businesses and restaurants open and our community safe," McDonald said. "If we are successful, we will hopefully enjoy more freedoms and less fear during the upcoming holidays.”