Denver will let restaurants and gyms operate at full capacity — though social-distancing requirements will make that difficult for many — beginning Friday when the state turns over control of COVID-19 public health measures to local authorities.
The city will move a step down to Level Blue and continue to follow the state’s color-coded dial for the next 30 days in conjunction with most other metro counties, including Adams, Jefferson, Boulder and Broomfield. Arapahoe County was at Level Blue and will remain there.
The change to Level Blue will allow bars that don’t also serve food to reopen, at limited capacity, for the first time since June and will move last call for alcohol back to 2 a.m.
Douglas County is the metro area’s holdout, with its elected leaders opting to eliminate all COVID-19 restrictions that had been dictated by the state’s dial come Friday.
“We think that we need to slow down a little bit with just dismissing the dial altogether,” Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said during a news briefing Wednesday. “We’re going to move to the blue phase, see how the virus responds, see what the data looks like.”
Denver also will no longer require masks to be worn outdoors, although they still must be worn in indoor public settings and when people are using public transportation. The changes to the mask order went into effect Wednesday and will expire in 30 days.
The move by Denver and most of the other metro counties to lower restrictions will happen when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment turns over control of most COVID-19 safety measures to local officials Friday by turning the restrictions dictated by the state’s dial into recommendations, not mandates.
The changes come despite the fact that coronavirus infections and hospitalizations are increasing in Colorado, which state officials have said is now experiencing a “fourth wave” of the virus. And it will create a hodgepodge of COVID-19 restrictions as some counties elect to continue following the state’s dial framework and others stop.
“The state’s decision means that a number of Colorado counties and local jurisdictions will not maintain restrictions,” Mayor Michael Hancock said during Denver’s briefing Wednesday. “There’s nothing that we can do about that, but we will be taking a different approach in Denver.”
Douglas County opts out of restrictions
In Douglas County, the elected commissioners voted this week to lift all restrictions on Friday and not follow the new health orders issued by the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties and first unveiled the metro-wide plan.
Still, statewide public health orders will remain in effect in Douglas County. This includes the statewide indoor mask mandate, which is in effect through May, and a potential order on large unseated events — the latter might be issued soon by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, county attorney Lance Ingalls said during Tuesday’s meeting of the county commissioners.
“We will continue to monitor the severity on a daily basis,” Commissioner Abe Laydon said during the meeting, adding, “I want… Douglas County to be the first county in the state to say, ‘This pandemic is over.’”
Despite the easing of restrictions, the global outbreak of the coronavirus is still classified as a pandemic by the World Health Organization because it has spread to multiple countries and is affecting a large number of people.
The dial often has been a point of contention between local and state leaders during the pandemic, as public health officials in the metro area often pushed the state Department of Public Health and Environment to move counties together when changing COVID-19 restrictions so that policies didn’t vary by location around Denver.
While the state is allowing counties to lift restrictions, public health officials encourage Coloradans to keep wearing masks, physically distancing and avoiding large gatherings until more people are vaccinated against the coronavirus.
The changes for the counties moving to Level Blue on Friday include:
- Restaurants can operate at 100% capacity with parties separated by at least 6 feet and groups limited to a maximum of 10 people
- Gyms can operate at 100% capacity with non-household members separated by at least 6 feet
- Bars that do not serve food can reopen at 25% capacity, not to exceed 75 people
- Last call for alcohol moves from 1 a.m. to 2 a.m.
- Non-critical manufacturing and offices can open at 75% capacity
- Retail locations can operate at 75% capacity
- Indoor unseated events can proceed at 50% capacity, not to exceed 75 people
Denver will deviate from the state’s dial when it comes to outdoor events.
The county will require a mitigation plan to be submitted before an outdoor event with fewer than 5,000 people can take place. If organizers want to host an event with more than 5,000 people, they will have to consult with the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment.
Distancing rule prohibitive for many restaurants
Denver’s move to Level Blue is a “step forward” for restaurants, but the distancing requirement of 6 feet between every party still will prevent small and medium restaurants from opening at 100%.
Instead, “many restaurants will remain at below 50% capacity,” Sonia Riggs, president and chief executive officer of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said in a statement.
For example, Chris Fuselier, the owner of the Blake Street Tavern in Denver, previously told The Denver Post that with a 6-foot social distancing requirement, he can only seat about 350 people out of the full 800-person capacity at his 18,000-square-foot location.
“Unfortunately, an unintended consequence of each county establishing their own guidelines will be the creation of a competitive advantage for restaurants located in counties with fewer restrictions and the potential loss of business for restaurants in surrounding counties with stricter safety guidelines,” Riggs said.
The metro area counties moving to Level Blue will stay there for 30 days. Then, from May 16 through Aug. 15, the counties will move to a new phase called Level Clear.
Level Clear will lift all restrictions, although masks will still have to be worn if there is a local or state mandate. If a county experiences a rise in its rate of coronavirus hospital admissions, it will move to stricter restrictions, according to Tri-County’s public health order.