AURORA | The Tri-County Health Department issued a new public health order for Arapahoe and Adams counties Friday in an effort to suppress rising transmission of COVID-19.
In Arapahoe County, the health order mandates that all bars and restaurants stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. and personal gatherings keep to fewer than 10 people.
The order went into effect at 11 p.m. and expires at midnight Nov. 1.
“This emergency public health order is an attempt to lower the increasing cases of COVID-19 in order to protect the health of our community and avoid the need for further reductions in community activities such as businesses, schools, and houses of worship in Arapahoe County,” Dr. John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County, said in a statement. “I know it gets old and that everyone has COVID fatigue, but there is strong reason to believe that infection could further spread and hospitalizations increase as we move further into the fall and winter. There will be light at the end of the tunnel as new vaccines become available, and we just cannot let our guard down yet.”
The order came hours after Denver health officials increased restrictions there. Tri-County also imposed restrictions on Adams County residents and businesses Friday.
In Adams County’s new rules, sports games are capped at 25 people per field and spectators are banned from high school sports gatherings and adult sports matches; indoor gatherings are limited to five people, outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people; and businesses must cut off all alcohol beverage sales at 10 p.m.
Unless the order is extended, it will expire Nov. 1.
COVID-19 positivity rates are now above 5% in Colorado — a critical metric — prompting state leaders and some local governments to plead for residents to take social distancing measures seriously heading into winter.
Gov. Jared Polis said during a news conference Friday that the state is submitting a plan to the CDC for how Colorado will respond when a limited supply of vaccines becomes available, which may be late November. Until enough of the vaccine is available, with case rates comparable to May’s numbers, Polis said Coloradans should seriously limit gatherings to reduce spread.
One in 260 Coloradans are infectious right now, according to Polis. That could mean attending three or four gatherings could put a person at a 50% chance of contracting the novel coronavirus.
Local officials in the Aurora region have also been imploring residents to isolate themselves and contain the virus.
“Rates are really going up fast,” Douglas said Thursday of the recent spikes. “People are just kind of sick of the COVID drill, staying home and not seeing people. This is not unique to Adams County or the metro area or the U.S.”
The picture is most concerning in Adams County, which contains north Aurora and much of the northern Denver metroplex. Although deaths and hospitalizations remain relatively low, that county hit an all-time peak of 140 new, confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.
The positivity rate and incidence rate far outstrip containment targets, also putting county residents at risk of living under more restrictions.
Arapahoe County is also seeing a fall surge in COVID-19 cases, although to a lesser extent than neighboring Adams County and Denver. In a virtual town hall on schools and the new coronavirus, Douglas said the region is seeing a potential fall surge in COVID-19 cases, and that cases have risen 17% in the last two weeks.
The spike threatens in-person learning in both Aurora Public Schools and Cherry Creek schools. Both districts are currently on a watch status, according to their internal school safety models, and many have to return to online learning if the trend continues.
“If we as a community are not able to bring those numbers down, we may have to shift back to remote learning,” Aurora superintendent Rico Munn said at the town hall.
The district, which only just started bringing students back on campus, will decide whether students need to return to remote learning by Oct. 22. Cherry Creek is also monitoring data to determine whether it needs to return to remote learning.
The dips in both safety models are both largely being driven by the increase in cases in Arapahoe and Adams counties.
Contact tracing efforts at Tri-County suggest cold weather driving people indoors and private gatherings are largely to blame for the case surges.
Douglas said Thursday Adams County has a large concentration of essential workers who have to leave their homes to earn an income. People on the “economic edge” can’t afford to stay home for two weeks, he said, or make their entire households stay home to quarantine as well. Many residents in Adams County live in intergenerational households, which further makes self-isolation difficult or impossible.
Arapahoe County Commissioner Nancy Sharpe said in a statement the new restrictions in Arapahoe County are necessary to help prevent shutdowns, like the ones that occurred this spring.
“No one wants to see our communities and economy return to the widespread shutdowns we had this past spring,” she said. “If we implement these mitigation measures now, we may be able to reverse these trends. It’s up to everyone to continue to do their part to stop the spread of the virus.”
While cases are up, Douglas said hospitalizations and death rates remain lower than the first wave of the pandemic. He attributed the reassuring metrics to better, smarter treatment in hospitalizations and the fact that younger people are contracting the virus in this current wave of infections.
The current picture has already spurred new restrictions in Denver.
Mayor Michael Hancock announced Friday the city is implementing a mask mandate for outdoor settings, effective immediately with exceptions for individuals who are outside alone or those with people in their immediate households.
Denver is also limiting the number of non-related people gathering from 10 to five, which will be in place until Nov. 16. While the new restrictions will not affect the current rules in place for businesses such as restaurants, city officials warned that businesses as well as indoor and outdoor activities could face tighter restrictions again if the upward COVID-19 trends continue.
As of Friday afternoon, Denver’s two-week incidence rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents was about 265. On Oct. 12, the city clocked 210 confirmed virus cases — higher than at any time during the pandemic.
While a vaccine isn’t currently available, pharmaceutical companies believe they are getting close. When a viable option is released, state leaders say first responders, health care workers and people living in long term care and nursing homes will be first eligible to receive it.
Availability of the vaccine will happen in three phases, according to state public health leaders, however, flexibility is key, Polis added.
Until then, masks, hand-washing and avoid gatherings as much as possible will help keep the virus contained.
“It’s a marathon, we might be at mile 15 and the last nine are the hardest,” Polis said. “We need to pace ourselves to get through this.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report