US virus cases near an all-time high as governors backtrack

The Associated Press Gov. Jared Polis wears a mask as he leaves a news conference about the state’s efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus June 24 in Denver.

Bars and nightclubs won't be allowed to operate in Colorado in July, Gov. Jared Polis announced Tuesday, reversing a mid-June decision allowing them to re-open with modifications, and citing the advice of governors in Texas and Arizona, states struggling with a coronavirus resurgence.

Polis spoke to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey Monday, both of whom he said attributed their states' recent increase in infections to re-opening bars and clubs, as well as allowing large parties.

"Our country, and the world, has not yet figured out, in the pandemic, how to do bars and nightclubs safely," Polis said, adding that allowing both types of establishments to remain open is "too big of a risk" to opening schools this fall. Doing so could also threaten allowing gyms, pools, and restaurants to remain open with health-protecting modifications, he said.

Bars and nightclubs must close in the next 48 hours, when a new public health order is issued, and the closures will remain in effect for 30 days. Bars that have taken steps to re-open as restaurants may continue functioning as such, so long as parties are spaced six feet apart, with no mingling. Regional variances granted by the state will not be affected, and bars that are open under such variances may remain open, he said.

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"We will celebrate the day again when Colorado will have renown nightlife of regional, national, and, indeed, international acclaim," Polis said. "We'll figure out a way; there's gotta be a way" to reopen them.

As of June 19, bars where patrons go for the primary purpose of beverage consumption were allowed to open at 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever was fewer, with tables at least six feet apart. 

Colorado has experienced a "slight uptick" in virus cases over the past two weeks, Polis said, with an upward trend in diagnoses nine out of the past 14 days.

Cases now number 32,715, with the state's R0 value — a measurement representing the number of subsequent infections from one case of coronavirus — hovering around one. If that value continues at or above one, the rate of virus transmission will grow over time, Polis said.

"It's not a matter of if, just a question of when" that rate will grow, he said. "Everyday activities become more dangerous. We don't want to have the kind of setback that Arizona, Texas, Utah, Oklahoma are having. Colorado is currently a positive outlier. We want to keep it that way."

"We've lost over 1,500 people to this virus," he said. "It would take another 1,500 from us in a heartbeat."

Colorado's recent increase has occurred "largely among the younger demographic," Polis said. "I think that's partially attributable to bars and nightclubs," as well as to recent protests.

Polis urged Coloradans to keep their Fourth of July celebrations small and socially distanced.

"We want to celebrate our nation's birthday, but we want to do that in a way that protects life and our economy," he said. "When people are having large parties, there's a spike. You have one big party, it goes from one person to 43 people. That's what this virus does."

Polis and state health officials also outlined criteria that will allow counties where the virus is controlled to transition to the stepped-down "protect our neighbors" phase — where they'll remain until the is a vaccine or cure — as early as next week, he said.

For a county to move to the third phase, low virus prevalence, healthcare capacity to handle a surge, and strong public health capacity are required, Polis said, adding that he expects some counties will qualify as soon as early July.

In counties that qualify for the loosest phase, bars and restaurants could reopen, as all activities will be allowed at 50% capacity with a maximum of 500 people, whichever is smaller.

Over the past few days, Florida, Arizona, Texas and California have closed newly re-opened bars, shut beaches, rolled back restaurant capacity and put limits on crowd size at pools to try to reverse the rapid infection increase in those states.

Polis' announcement came the same day as the nation's leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said  at a U.S. Senate hearing coronavirus cases could grow to 100,000 a day in the U.S. if Americans don’t start following public health recommendations.

In other coronavirus news:

- To protect public health, the state needs 80-85% of residents to wear masks, about the rate it's at now, Polis said.

- The state has recovered 20% of the jobs it lost in March and April. The unemployment rate is 10.2%, and while lower than the rest of the country, is still "unacceptable," he said.

- Deaths among Colorado coroanvirus cases totaled 1,690 as of Tuesday, with 1,520 of those directly attributable to the virus, according to updated numbers released by the state health department.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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