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Downtown Denver and Speer Boulevard are pictured on November 11, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Denver will force businesses, gyms and offices to reduce their capacity on Wednesday because of rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the city.

The changes come as the state has downgraded the city to Colorado’s safer-at-home Level 3 status, one step above returning to a full-fledged lockdown like what was put in place this spring. The state Department of Public Health and Environment announced Tuesday it is also moving five other counties to more restrictive statuses: Adams, Arapahoe, Kit Carson, Otero and Crowley.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced the news for his city on Tuesday, saying that everyone needs to work to reverse the trend as soon as possible.


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.


“The numbers are the numbers,” Hancock said of Denver’s coronavirus case situation. “They don’t lie.”

Under the safer-at-home Level 3 status, businesses, including restaurants and retail, as well as places of worship and offices can only operate at 25% of their capacity — down from 50% — and indoor events are capped at 25 people.

Outdoor events have a 75-person limit.

At the time of the announcement Tuesday, the state’s safer-at-home Level 3 rules dictated that gyms close except to host virtual and and outdoor classes. On Tuesday night, the state Health Department issued new regulations allowing gyms in counties at Level 3 status to operate at either 25% capacity or 25 people, whichever is fewer.

The state recommends that counties under safer-at-home Level 3 status move K-12 schools to either fully remote learning or to a hybrid remote-and-in-person scheme. Health officials recommend limiting in-person learning “as appropriate.”

Voter service centers will not be affected by the new restrictions. Hancock said variances that allow for greater capacity at Denver’s cultural institutions, such as the Denver Zoo and Botanic Gardens, will not be changed.

Denver will be under safer-at-home Level 3 status for at least several weeks until it can prove to state health officials that its cases, hospitalizations and positive test rate has been reduced over a sustained period of time.

Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said Denver’s two-week cumulative case rate is 385 per 100,000 people. The city must reduce that to 175 per 100,000 people over two weeks for things to return the way they were.

“We’re seeing an increase for all age groups,” McDonald said.

McDonald said intensive-care unit capacity is going down as hospitalizations rise. “Hospital systems could be overwhelmed in the next couple of weeks,” McDonald said. “It could happen that soon. We need to act quickly here.”

McDonald said Denver faces a risk of being forced into returning to a stay-at-home lockdown status if the trend doesn’t change.

“That’s a real possibility here,” he said.

Bob McDonald, executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, speaks during a COVID-19 update in the City and County Building’s Parr-Widener Room. May 5, 2020. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Hancock said Denverites need to do everything possible to ensure the city’s economy isn’t forced to shut down again. The mayor said businesses have already let him know that the new restrictions, as Denver slides into safer-at-home Level 3 status, will be tough for them.

“We can get this thing back under control, but we’re going to have to take more of a serious approach,” Hancock said.

Denver tried to slow the spread of COVID-19 in recent weeks by requiring mask-wearing outdoors and by limiting gatherings to no more than five people in the city. Those measures don’t appear to have worked, however, and Denver’s coronavirus situation has only worsened since then.

Coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are rising across the state, following a trend being experienced across the U.S. On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis’ administration restricted gatherings to no more than 10 people from two households in 60 of Colorado’s 64 counties.

The counties that are exempt are under the state’s protect-our-neighbors status.

Denver isn’t the only county that has been moving in the wrong direction on the state’s COVID-19 “dial.” Logan County has previously been moved to the safer-at-home Level 3 status by state health officials. The state Health Department announced Tuesday that it would also move Adams County to safer-at-home Level 3.

Arapahoe County, Kit Carson County and the southeastern Colorado counties of Otero and Crowley will be downgraded to the safer-at-home Level 2 status this week, CDPHE said. That follows La Plata County, in southwestern Colorado, moving to the same status on Monday, while Mesa County — which had previously been in the relatively lightly restricted protect-our-neighbors status, was downgraded to safer-at-home Level 1.

As counties move down the dial, restrictions at restaurants, houses of worship and other places ratchet up. Moving down the dial allows for greater capacity at businesses and in-person instruction at schools.

“We need everyone to stay vigilant. Colorado is experiencing a swift rise in cases right now that is worrisome,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said in a written statement. “As we head into winter and spend more time indoors, the virus is going to be harder to suppress.”

Polis, during a coronavirus briefing on Tuesday, said that Colorado’s test positivity rate is now between 6% and 7% — above the 5% threshold at which the World Health Organization recommends governments begin issuing new restrictions to slow the spread of the disease.

The governor said Colorado continues to detect more coronavirus cases than at any point during the pandemic.

Hospitalizations because of COVID-19, which have been increasing since Sept. 30, reached 538 on Tuesday, their highest level since May 12.

“Now is the time to shrink our bubbles, to be more careful,” Polis said.

Scott Bookman, the state’s incident commander, said that a number of Colorado hospitals are “stressed” under the increasing caseloads.

“Some of our hospitals have had to manage their elective surgeries from day to day,” he said. “But nobody is at the point where they are turning away patients, where we are thinking about crisis standards of care.”

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....