To combat the “staggering” rise in COVID-19 cases, Denver warns of consequences for public health violators

The Denver Dept. of Public Health & Environment said it’s prepared to lay down penalties for “egregious violations,” like a loss of licenses for businesses and citations for protestors.
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Adolisa Schaefer gets a COVID-19 test at Paco Sanchez Park in West Colfax. Oct. 2, 2020.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite

With COVID-19 numbers heading into troubling territory, Denver is warning of serious consequences for those who violate public health orders.

The city issued that message Tuesday. The Denver Dept. of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) said it's prepared to lay down penalties for "egregious violations," like a loss of licenses for businesses and citations for protestors.

The agency's leader said the city is continuing to see venues holding packed events, without facial coverings or physical distancing, as required.

"These blatant violations exacerbate a staggering increase in positive COVID cases in our community," said Robert McDonald, DDPHE's Executive Director and Public Health Administrator. He said the "reckless flouting of laws," enacted to protect the public's health, has forced the city to "pursue these extreme offenders."

"We will hold them accountable to the maximum extent the law allows, including revocation of business licenses," McDonald said.

Hospitalizations in the region are on the rise. The positivity rate (rate of positive COVID-19 tests) on average over the last two weeks has risen to 8.5%; new cases leapt to 514 for every 100,000 people. To get back to the state's Safer at Home Level 2 phase of re-opening, case numbers in Denver must fall to about a third of that, at least, or 174 new cases for 100,000 people.

The move comes as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases in Colorado are on a sharp upward trajectory.

On Monday, Colorado documented 755 people in the hospital due to the virus. That's a major jump, up nearly 70 from the day before, and up nearly 250 in a week.

Dr. John Hammer, an infectious disease specialist at Denver's Rose Medical Center, said social distancing and wearing a mask are as important as ever.

"It's very disheartening. I think that we expected a rise in the winter when people started to have to be indoors more with more potential for exposure," he said. "But I didn't expect to see it quite this early."

The state's daily positivity rate blew past 10%, a figure not seen since late spring.

The state health department Monday reported nearly 2,000 Coloradans getting a positive test. That's roughly triple the number from a month ago and six times the number from September 1.

Hammer said small gatherings seem to be driving case numbers.

"I think that what we're seeing is an increasing number of people that are indoors in close proximity to each other without a mask," he said. "I think that situations where you see that are to me situations that are high risk for transmission."

Last week, due to the skyrocketing numbers, the state ordered Denver to move into the Safer at Home Level 3 High Risk category on its COVID-19 dial dashboard. The state enacted enhanced restrictions in Denver, including a reduction of capacity for restaurants and retail from 50% to 25%.

The agency said the order applies to protests, and the penalty for violators includes a fine and jail time. Anyone who attends a demonstration without wearing a face covering, which is required by Denver's public health order, and proper social distancing, could be cited. A citation requires a mandatory court appearance and carries a maximum penalty of $999 per violation, and up to 300 days in jail, to be determined by a judge.

The city's public health order also now requires face coverings be worn outdoors, when not alone or with members of your household and can't maintain social distancing. To return to Level 2, the city must reduce its positivity, hospitalization and case numbers for two weeks.

The stricter rules aim to help Denver avoid a return to the most restrictive posture on the state's color-coded COVID-19 dial. If the metrics are sustained the state could implement a Stay at Home order for the city and county.

The agency Tuesday also reminded Denver residents they can get free COVID tests. They can visit one of three static community testing sites, including a new one opening today. Denver Human Services East opened Tuesday morning at 3815 Steele St. Residents can also get tested at Paco Sanchez Park or Montbello Recreation Center, although Montbello's testing site was temporarily shifted to Green Valley Ranch Pool until after the elections.

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