Free coronavirus testing at Citadel Mall

Officials from The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment announced the launch of COVID-19 community testing mobile vans on Friday.

New restrictions will go into effect in El Paso County next week, as state public health officials work to combat recent increases in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment notified the county Friday morning that El Paso County must move to Level 2 safer-at-home restrictions, which will roll back the number of people allowed to gather in restaurants, gyms and other indoor spaces. The county has until 5 p.m. Wednesday — a day after Tuesday's general election — to fully implement the tightened restrictions.

Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers said the state decided to delay enforcement of the restrictions until after the election to avoid creating confusion or deterring residents from voting in person. Businesses, particularly restaurants, also need time to make operational changes to accommodate the new guidelines around smaller gatherings, he said.

Suthers said while he was disappointed in the state's decision to enforce tighter regulations in El Paso County, he wasn't surprised.

"Our numbers have been over the threshold for Level 1 for several weeks now, and technically are high enough to push us into level 3," he said.

The county has seen a rapidly growing number of cases since the beginning of October and has far more cases now than it saw during the spike in July. El Paso County has seen about 2,000 new cases in the last two weeks and 278 cases per 100,000 residents over the same period, according to El Paso County Public Health. The threshold for moving to Level 3 of the safer-at-home state rules is 175 to 350 cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks, according to the state.

Hospitalizations have also been steadily rising and 92 patients were in regional hospitals with COVID-19 or under investigation for the disease, health department data shows.

While daily hospital admissions are stabilizing, they are elevated, and officials are concerned patient numbers could start growing again.

"We urge our community to step up prevention efforts once again to impact El Paso County’s disease transmission and help reduce exponential growth of COVID-19 to protect public health and to support our economy and schools in the safest and most sustainable way possible,” El Paso County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan said in a written statement Friday.

However, some residents are frustrated by the prospect of additional restrictions. Nearly 30 people spoke at a meeting of the El Paso County Board of Health on Wednesday, many of them asking the board to advocate against further shutdowns, saying they would be detrimental to local businesses and the overall mental health of the community.

"I know a lot of the decisions aren’t yours," business owner Patrick Malfitano told the board. "But get out there in the next couple of days and go patronize five, six, seven small businesses. ... Talk to the small people like us, the small people that vote, the small people that matter in this community.”

Cathy Vanley, a real estate agent in Colorado Springs, said the county cannot stand another round of shutdowns.

"We want a future for our children," she said. "So many people lost their jobs and businesses closed, never to be opened again. This happened because of our officials in our state, county and city. This did not happen because of the people."

Public health leaders have said El Paso County must comply with state mandates and cannot enforce looser regulations than required by the state.

El Paso County Commissioner Mark Waller said he was hopeful the new designation would put the county back on a downward trend of cases.

"At some point, we have to say it's here and we have to do what we can to mitigate it," Waller said, adding public health officials are "doing everything they can possibly do in the effort to move us in a positive direction."

Changes required by Level 2 safer-at-home include:

• Restaurants will be permitted up to 100 people with social distancing, down from 175 permitted under Level 1.  

• Gyms will operate only at 25% capacity, or up to 50 people, compared to 75 people as permitted in Level 1.

• Indoor events will now be limited to 100 people, as opposed to the previously allowed 175.

The state also recently limited personal gatherings not already covered in its state coronavirus metrics to 10 or fewer people from no more than two households.

Last week, county officials submitted an updated mitigation plan to the state “and is working diligently to implement additional mitigation strategies with partners to reverse the concerning trends,” the statement said.

Under the new mitigation plan, the county will work with the Economic Development Regional Recovery Council, area schools and other community partners to "reverse the concerning trends.” The county will also work with the Pikes Peak Chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association on a COVID-19 safety certification plan that will evaluate restaurants and bars on standard COVID-19 safety criteria. The county is also increasing low-barrier testing sites, including recently added sites in Fountain, Falcon/Peyton and Monument.

“But make no mistake, if our numbers do not turn around, we will see further restrictions on our economy, and more importantly, we could see avoidable loss of life,” Suthers said.

To help reduce the number of rising COVID-19 cases, county officials advise residents to keep gatherings small; limit unnecessary trips; wear masks; practice social distancing; continue frequent handwashing; and stay at home when sick, even with mild symptoms.

For more details on the state's coronavirus metrics, visit covid19.colorado.gov/data/covid-19-dial.

A list of testing sites in El Paso County is available at elpasocountyhealth.org/covid-19-testing-information.