Masks outside, smaller groups: Denver strengthens public health orders

COVID-19 infections rates and hospitalizations are on the rise.

Che Luera was already wearing a mask outside when Denver's tighter rules on face coverings were announced. Oct. 16, 2020.

Che Luera was already wearing a mask outside when Denver's tighter rules on face coverings were announced. Oct. 16, 2020.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
(Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

staff photo

A spike in coronavirus cases in Denver prompted city public health officials on Friday to unveil new health orders, including stricter face covering rules and limiting public and private gatherings.

Face coverings will now be required outside unless you are alone or with people in your home, and the city will only allow groups of five unrelated people or less to gather. The previous rule allowed 10.

Mayor Michael Hancock and city public health executive director Bob McDonald said earlier this week that COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have started rising at a concerning rate. On Friday, Hancock said case rates have now reached their highest levels ever in the city, surpassing rates from the start of the pandemic.

Hancock said the city is “brimming on the edge of a crisis” that could endanger health and damage the economy.

“We’re taking these additional steps today to reduce the spread of this virus in our community because right now, we need to do more,” Hancock said, adding the “hard work” to curb the virus should be done now so people can enjoy the looming holiday season with family.

Data from Denver Public Health shows the city’s seven-day moving case average sits at 150.3 as of Thursday, higher than the 126.3 peak in late April when the pandemic was starting. The two-week cumulative rate is also at its highest ever. McDonald noted the city ramped up its testing at the Pepsi Center, which opened in May, since the spring and is now focusing on neighborhood testing sites. The Pepsi Center closed after September.

The stricter face covering order goes into effect immediately and will be in place until further notice. The rule about gatherings goes into effect immediately as well and will be in place until Nov. 16. Hancock encouraged regional partners to consider putting similar rules into place.

The changes are meant to avoid further business and retail closures. Right now, the city is at a safer at home level based on the state’s metrics. If the city’s positivity rate and hospitalizations continues to rise, it could prompt reduced capacity at restaurants and workspaces, earlier last call for booze and more restrictions on outdoor and indoor events.

Hancock encouraged people to keep wearing their face coverings. He asked people to consider their favorite local restaurant or small business and what the impact of not following public health orders could mean for their future.

McDonald outlined some exemptions for the rules. He said if you’re outdoors by yourself, you won’t need to wear a face covering. Same if you’re outdoors with your family or with people you live with. You’ll need to wear a face covering if you’re hanging out with people who don’t live with you. Also exempt are organized athletic events, like youth, high school or college sports like football or soccer, since McDonald said they have their own rules guiding how they work.

Non-organized events aren’t exempt, so pickup games with more than 5 people are a no-go under the new rules.

McDonald said restaurants will still be allowed to seat people because of different rules and protocols they’re following.

The city plans on beefing up its enforcement of the public health orders, including working with the public safety department, McDonald said. People found in violation of the order could be issued a court summons.

The rise in cases led Denver Public School to scratch its plans for in-person learning for high school and middle school students. And Denver Public Library scrapped plans to reopen several branches.

Cases statewide are increasing as well. The state’s positivity rate rose this week, and Gov. Jared Polis warned the uptick in cases could translate to more hospitalizations. Polis is scheduled to hold a press conference on Friday at 1 p.m.

This story has been updated throughout. 

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