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An empty RTD MallRide bus stops on the 16th Street Mall, where most businesses have closed as the coronavirus outbreak spreads around the state on March 18, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Updated on Wednesday, March 25, 2020, at 5:46 p.m.: Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order that goes into effect Thursday, March 26, and lasts until at least April 11.

A day after Colorado Gov. Jared Polis said a mandate that people stay in their homes to prevent spread of the new coronavirus was unenforceable, the mayor of the state’s largest city issued an order that does just that. 


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.


Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Monday announced a stay-at-home decree, closing nonessential businesses and banning people from congregating in parks and other public places. The order cuts off the last vestiges of normal social interaction in the city as health officials try everything they can to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

“We’re the densest area in the state and right now we have the highest number of positive cases in the state,” Hancock said. “Because of that, we need to take extra steps.”

There are at least 125 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Denver out of the more than 700 statewide. Officials have said there are likely thousands of people who are infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, but that many haven’t been tested because of shortages.

Denver’s stay-at-home order will be in effect starting Tuesday at 5 p.m. and last until at least April 10. 

Denver parks will remain open for people to walk and hike in, but not congregate or play sports. Playgrounds and most retail stores will be shut down.

Public transit, including Denver International Airport and rideshares, are not affected by the order. Restaurants still will be allowed to deliver food and offer takeout meals. Medical marijuana stores are exempt, as are grocery stores, banks, laundromats, and child care facilities.

MORE: Read the Denver stay-at-home order for a complete list of exemptions and affected businesses.

Recreational marijuana shops and liquor stores were initially ordered to close, but then Denver amended its order after a frenzy began moments after the announcement.

People streamed toward liquor and marijuana shops hoping to stock up for the 18-day dry period. Lines formed. Aisles were jammed. And patrons were likely closer to each other than they should have been given the virus’ spread.

The crowd at Argonaut is on a one-in-on-out rotation to prevent overcrowding on March 23, 2020. Less than two hours earlier, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced that recreational dispensaries and liquor stores would close until April 10 in the city to combat the spread of coronavirus. The city later amended the order to allow them to stay open.(Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

“This is an evolving situation and guidance will continue to be refined to ensure that all physical distancing measures are having the desired impact,” the city said in a tweet explaining why the order was being changed.

Denver mayor explains why he issued order

Hancock said behavior over the weekend prompted the need for the order, including people picnicking and playing sports together at parks.

The mayor said he expects surrounding cities and counties to follow with similar mandates and that he’s spoken to leaders about the need for the metro area to be on the same page. Boulder on Tuesday evening announced a stay-at-home order of its own that will be effect for the same period as Denver’s.

“This isn’t a recommendation anymore,” Hancock said. “People need to stay at home.”

The list of activities under which people are allowed to leave their homes for under the order are:

  • To engage in activities or perform tasks essential to health and safety, such as obtaining medical supplies or medication or visiting a health care professional
  • To purchase groceries and other household consumer products
  • To engage in outdoor activities that comply with social distancing mandates
  • To care for a family member or pet in another household
  • To visit a place of residence outside of Denver
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock speaks at a news conference on March 13, 2020 in Gov. Jared Polis’ office. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Hancock said he spoke to Polis before the order was issued and that the governor is “very supportive.” The mayor said last week that he would prefer a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order be made at the state level rather than by individual cities and towns.

Polis thanked Hancock in a written statement. “Last week, San Miguel issued a stay at home order for noncritical functions and additional isolation measures were also taken in Gunnison, Eagle, and Summit counties,” the governor’s statement said. “Today, the City and County of Denver issued a similar order. I’m strongly in support of these local efforts, and it’s extremely important that just as our state is acting boldly and urgently, that our county health departments are also taking strong actions guided by science, data, and the real-life situation on the ground, including taking into account local factors like population density and concentration of coronavirus cases, to best contain the spread of the virus.”

Similar shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders have been issued in recent days in several other cities and states including California, Illinois and Connecticut. While the specifics of the mandates differ depending on who issues them, they generally direct residents to leave their homes as little as possible.

People can face fines or even jail time for disobeying a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order. In Denver, anyone who violates the order will be subject to a civil penalty of up to $999 per violation.

“These are not easy decisions,” Hancock said.

But, he said, the trend of the coronavirus’ spread is moving in the wrong direction and that public health officials have been advising him for days that a stay-at-home order is necessary.

“The bolder and quicker we move, the faster we can end the economic trauma in our community,” Hancock said.

Polis said law enforcement authority can enforce stay-at-home orders

Polis on Sunday said in lieu of a stay-at-home or shelter-in-place order, he was issuing “the strongest possible guidance” to Coloradans that they should not leave their homes unless it’s absolutely necessary. He advised people 60 and older and those with preexisting health conditions not go out unless they need medical care.

“No matter the way that these are being explained to people, there is no civil law enforcement authority that is in a position in any city or state to enforce these,” Polis said of shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.

MORE: Governor opts to ask — not mandate — that people stay home; requires some employers to limit in-person workforce by 50%

He said the threat of jail or prison time won’t motivate people to adhere to extreme social distancing measures. But “a threat of death to your loved ones” will.

“What will inspire people to do this, and what will lead people to do this, is not fear of a policeman taking you to jail,” Polis said. “That’s not happening in Chicago. It’s not happening in Seattle. It’s not happening anywhere. It is fear of the Grim Reaper; an informed fear of the death and devastation that this virus can cause.”

In Denver, enforcement will only be used as a last resort and will be carried out by police and the city’s park rangers. The order, Hancock said, is “not about bringing a hammer.”

“Listen, we certainly agree that the enforcement mechanism of any type of order is challenging,” Hancock. “We start with voluntary compliance. That is where we get the greatest movement on these type of orders.”

In Denver, people flock to liquor stores

The mad rush toward liquor and recreational marijuana stores — before the city’s order was amended — happened in a matter of minutes.

It came after Hancock said during his news conference that “tonight would be the opportunity for you to go grab supply if you need to resupply.”

People almost immediately heeded Hancock’s suggestion and panic buying spread from Denver into the suburbs, with long lines forming outside stores in Boulder, Englewood and Thornton.

A line forms outside of a recreational marijuana shop in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood on Monday, March 23, 2020, just minutes after Mayor Michael Hancock announced they would soon be shut down. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

At a small liquor store in Denver’s Park Hill neighborhood, a widely spaced line that numbered more than 50 snaked around the block and into the alley.

Down the road, a huge swarm of people filled Mayfair Liquors to the point social distancing became impossible with people clumped together on narrow aisles and compressed in a line that snaked the store. An employee at the door reminded patrons that they would be open until 5 p.m. Tuesday, per the mayor’s order. 

“I was listening to the (mayor’s) press conference online, and when they announced liquor stores were closing, I came right out,” said Katrina Evans, a 31-year-old accountant who lives in Denver, who stood in line with a couple bottles of wine in a basket.

The close quarters unnerved Evans and other patrons, some of whom wore masks or pulled their shirts over their mouth and nose as they entered the crowd. “It’s a little bit intimidating,” Evans said of the large crowd. “I’m trying not to think about it too much.”

She acknowledged that the trip will probably force her to take precautions. Next on her agenda: “Stay inside and self-isolate for the next two weeks.”

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report.

Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....