Gatherings of any size among people between the ages of 18 and 22 are prohibited in the city of Boulder until at least Oct. 8 as public health officials attempt to slow a surge in coronavirus cases linked to the University of Colorado.
An order enacting the mandate goes into effect at 4 p.m. Thursday. Violating the order is a Class 1 misdemeanor and could result in a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months in jail.
There have been nearly 1,400 confirmed or probable coronavirus cases among University of Colorado Boulder students since Aug. 24, the first day of the fall semester. That represents 78% of Boulder County’s COVID-19 cases during that span and is the largest single state outbreak of the disease since it was first detected in Colorado on March 3.
Boulder County Public Health had already asked CU Boulder students to voluntarily quarantine until at least Sept. 29, only leaving home to get food, attend classes, exercise and/or seek medical care.
Then, on Monday, the university cancelled in-person classes until at least Oct. 7 to slow the spread of the virus.
But health officials say they are still seeing troubling behavior, which prompted the latest restrictions. “We are still seeing evidence of gatherings,” said Jeff Zayach, who leads Boulder County Public Health.
The public health order issued on Thursday is the most stringent step taken yet to get the outbreak under control.
“COVID-19 positive-case data for Boulder County shows that at this stage of the pandemic emergency, it is essential to slow the virus among persons aged between 18 to 22 years, especially those who reside in the city of Boulder, particularly in collegiate group homes and residences with
documented histories of public health order violations,” the order says. “By reducing the rate of potential transmission of COVID-19, this order helps to prevent increased disease transmission across the greater Boulder County community and preserve critical and limited healthcare capacity in Boulder County.”
The order also requires the following:
- That CU Boulder students monitor their health daily for potential COVID-19 symptoms
- That students report any symptoms or positive coronavirus test results to the university
- That students cooperate with Boulder County Public Health and university-led contact tracing and case-investigation efforts
The limit on gatherings does not apply to people who live in the same household.
The order also includes a list of 36 addresses in Boulder where residents, who health officials say have “repeatedly violated public health orders,” are required to stay inside at all times.
“The success of this is going to be relative to individual behavior change,” Zayach said. “This age group can absolutely be part of the solution.”
He added: “We need to solve this problem together. We can do it.”
CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano on Thursday sent a letter to the campus community telling students they can either stay in Boulder and abide by public health guidelines or return to their homes and transition fully to remote learning.
“Traveling home is not our preference and public health agencies have advised against it,” DiStefano wrote.
In an online media call Thursday morning, the university reported 374 students have cancelled their on-campus housing agreements this week.
DiStefano, in his letter, pleaded with students not to disobey rules put in place by public health officials and the university.
“There may be criminal penalties under the county public health order and/or suspension from the university via our student conduct code and health and safety policy,” he wrote. “Please do not choose this option.”
CU says it is expanding access to campus health and wellness services and bolstering its lineup of remote activities to help students make it through the requirements of the new public health order.
“Like many of our peer universities across the country, we continue to face new challenges related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” DiStefano wrote in his letter. “Some have enacted similar approaches to ours and are successfully reducing their positive cases. I believe we can as well, but only if we work together and make sacrifices for each other.”
The outbreak among CU students, paired with decreased social distancing across the state and increasing case numbers, has prompted Gov. Jared Polis and his health team to issue a warning that COVID-19 is making a resurgence.
Polis also has asked Coloradans in general to be more vigilant in the coming weeks to prevent further spread of COVID-19.
“We know this isn’t the school year that any of us imagined, but urgent action is needed to prevent further spread in the community,” Polis said in a written statement Thursday in response to the new public health order in Boulder.
DiStefano acknowledged Thursday in the call with reporters that university officials knew there would be a spike in cases when the school resumed operations.
“We knew this was a high probability, but at the same time we knew that our students wanted to be back at the university, especially our first-year students,” DiStefano said.
CU Boulder Interim Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Operating Officer Patrick O’Rourke said epidemiologists and health officials told the university “it was achievable for us to be able to return in the fall semester.”
“We followed their guidance,” O’Rourke said.
DiStefano said that he thinks cases will decline if students listen to guidance — and now legal orders that carry criminal penalties — from public health officials and that the university will be able to resume in-person classes in the coming weeks.
“I’m pleased, so far, with how things have gone,” he said.