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Dine Out Downtown, a summer program with expanded outdoor seating for downtown restaurants was a hit with diners on S. Tejon Street on Saturday, June 20, 2020. Larger Restaurants are allowed to welcome larger crowds of 175 people indoors if they can maintain social distancing, a timely rule change as colder weather sets in. (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

El Paso County restaurants, indoor venues and gyms can now allow larger indoor gatherings, under new state coronavirus rules this week. 

The rules allow restaurants and indoor venues to host up to 175 people or 50% of a room's capacity, up from a cap of 100 people or 50% capacity. The new rules allow gyms to open to 25% capacity or 175 people, up from a cap of 100 people. 

“We’re pleased that business owners can increase their operations as well as the underlying fact that the variance modification means that the data is positive. Wearing masks, practicing social distancing, and following all of the safety guidelines is working," said Dirk Draper, president and CEO for the Colorado Springs Chamber & Economic Development Corp.

The change is also timely because as cold weather sets in, restaurants will lose their outdoor patio spaces, he said. 

El Paso County previously allowed indoor gatherings of up to 175 people earlier this year, but rolled back the number of people allowed to gather at the end of July following a steep rise in COVID-19 cases. 

The county is now at the least restrictive of the three new levels of the state's Safer at Home rules because of a low number of hospitalizations, reduced number of new COVID-19 cases over two weeks per 100,000 residents and low percentage of people testing positive.

El Paso County Public Health reports hospital capacity is "very good," on average 2.48% of those tested have been positive for COVID-19 over two weeks and, as of Thursday, 61 new cases per 100,000 residents had been identified over two weeks. The number of new cases is down from 157 new cases per 100,000 residents as of July 29.

The new state rules for allowing higher indoor capacities is more generous than previous standards. The state used to require the county to have only 25 new cases per 100,0000 residents over two weeks to allow gatherings up to 175 people. The number allowed to gather was increased because testing, tracing and treatment for COVID-19 has improved, according a statement from the State Emergency Operations Center.      

Despite a sustained decline in the number of new COVID-19 cases in El Paso County, outbreaks are happening at an increasing rate and there are 33 ongoing outbreaks at long-term care facilities, churches, stores, schools, hotels and construction sites, county Public Health said in a news release. The county is also seeing a rise in cases among residents 60 and older, it said. 

As temperatures cool and residents stay inside for longer periods of time with less ventilation, there is concern the disease could spread further. But there are many factors at play that could drive a fall spike in cases, including how severe the fall and winter weather is, how the disease spreads within schools and how diligently residents follow prevention measures, El Paso County Health spokeswoman Michelle Hewitt said.

The new capacity limits come at a good time for larger restaurants and other venues as colder weather sets in during the end of the tourism season. While the season started late, it is finishing strong, said PK Knickerbocker, executive director at Pikes Peak Region Attractions. The association members include the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, Cave of the Winds and the Space Foundation Discovery Center, among others. 

"We were surprised at how much traffic we got," she said. 

Business likely could have been better at attractions without capacity limits imposed by public health officials and difficulty hiring employees, she said. 

Normally, area attractions see a break in the tourism season around Aug. 15 as students go back to school, but the season just kept going this year, Knickerbocker said. On the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, the association set a record for ticket sales to its attractions and she expects strong travel to the region to continue because of pent-up demand. 

The new capacity limits will not help some of the largest venues in town that can seat thousands, such as the Broadmoor World Arena or the Pikes Peak Center for the Performing Arts. For venues of that size, it doesn't make financial sense to open for 175 people, said Dot Lischick, general manager of the World Arena.

 It's put the venues in a tough place. 

"'Go pay all the bills, but you can't do any business. ...  That's what they have said for all of those venues," Lischick said. 

Keeping the venues closed has also had a negative ripple effect, hurting ushers, box-office workers, musicians, food vendors and others, she said.

Lischick would like to see more federal aid to help venues survive, a move that the national Save our Stages campaign is calling for as well. 

For now, the venues are playing a rescheduling game as entertainers and other industry professionals try to guess when it might be safe to reopen, she said. For example, an event planned for Pikes Peak Center in November recently rescheduled for August. 

"We are bound and determined to make it. But if this goes on for another year, we are not gong to make it," she said. 

Contact the writer at mary.shinn@gazette.com or (719) 429-9264.

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