With cases of COVID-19 soaring over the past month, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced stricter mask-wearing and group-gathering rules on Friday with hopes of stemming the spread.

Effective immediately, face coverings will be required in all outdoor settings with few exceptions, including being outside alone or with a household member, he said. Organized athletic programming will also be exempt. The second order will cut the number of unrelated people allowed to gather together in half, from 10 to five, in both public and private gatherings, non-organized athletic events and workplace settings, such as meetings.

The mask rules will be in place until further notice, and the gatherings order will be in effect for 30 days. 

"With the holidays on the horizon, we must take these additional steps over the next 30 days and knuckle down together to do the hard work that needs to be done so we can all enjoy this upcoming holiday season," Hancock said, adding that regional leaders should take similar steps to help.

In restaurant settings, 10 unrelated people will still be allowed to sit together because the activity falls under the state's public health orders, which require restaurants to have protective rules in place, such as requiring face coverings except when seated. Those safeguards don't exist in unregulated settings, such as parks, however.    

The state — as well as Denver, Colorado Springs and other cities — are seeing a “third wave” of COVID-19, health officials warn, following a second spike in July. Denver's case rates are now higher than they've ever been, said Bob McDonald, executive director of Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment. 

The city’s seven-day case average was 127 at the start of the week, higher than the peak of 126 cases in late April. Hospitalization rates in Denver have also increased over the past several weeks. On Monday, the city said its seven-day average of hospitalizations was 174, a 37% increase from the week earlier. 

Hancock also said earlier this week that the city’s positivity rate sits between 4% and 4.5%. If that rate surpasses 5%, it would mean “a great deal of trouble” for Denver, he said, possibly forcing the city to scale back its reopening efforts and limit its capacity at local businesses.

The troubling trend prompted Denver Public Schools to announce this week that its middle- and high-school students will stick with remote learning into November. 

While COVID-19 rates are lower in Colorado Springs, the city is also experiencing an upward trend in infections, with a seven-day average of 86 cases as of Thursday — its second highest so far.

El Paso County is currently classified by the state as Safer Level 1, the second least restrictive level of pandemic operations. Under this level, personal gatherings are limited to 25, churches and restaurants can seat up to 175 or 50% capacity (whichever is less), gyms are allowed to operate at 25% capacity of 75 persons (whichever is less), and outdoor events are capped at 250.

The county is nearly double the upper limit of cases to remain in Safer Level 1 and is in a two-week grace period before it could be downgraded to Safer Level 2, which Denver currently sits in. Such a move would limit personal gatherings to 10, churches and restaurants to 50, gyms to 50, and outdoor events to 175.

Denver currently sits nearly 100 cases above the upper limit of Safer Level 2 and is in danger of moving to Safer Level 3, the last stop before moving back to Stay at Home restrictions, like the entire state saw this spring. Under level 3, churches and restaurants are limited to 25% capacity or 50 people (whichever is less), gyms are limited to virtual operations or outdoor events of less than 10 people, retail capacity and offices are limited to 25%, and outdoor events are limited to 75.

Colorado on Monday reported nearly 970 new cases, and the state’s test positivity rate passed the 5% benchmark.

On Monday, Gov. Jared Polis extended the statewide mask order by another 30 days and granted a waiver for "certain indoor activities that take place for a limited time period if such activities cannot practically or safely be performed while wearing a mask."

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