Just when you thought you understood Colorado’s color-coded COVID-19 dial—green is good, orange is bad, red is worse—Governor Jared Polis has moved the goalposts.

During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Polis unveiled a revised framework that will drive the state’s response to the ongoing pandemic. And on Friday, 15 Colorado counties—including Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe, Douglas, Adams, Boulder, and Broomfield—will move to the amended Level Red: Severe Risk, which means a number of new restrictions will be put in place in an attempt to curb the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 and prevent another stay-at-home order.

“Last week, over a span of about three days, we went from 3,500 cases a day to 5,100 to over 6,000,” Polis said during the briefing, noting that about one in 110 people in Colorado is contagious with the virus (in Denver that number is one in 64). “We need to act to stop this exponential growth.” He also noted that more people are hospitalized in Colorado today than at any point during the pandemic.

Along with a temporary ban on indoor dining, the new Level Red also forbids indoor events and gatherings of any kind, and restricts alcohol sales at restaurants and bars after 8 p.m. Restaurants will still be able to offer takeout and delivery services and gyms can operate at 10 percent capacity. Childcare facilities can stay open. Elementary and middle schools can continue offering in-person classes or a hybrid program, while it’s suggested that high schools shift to hybrid or fully remote learning. Retail businesses can remain open at 50 percent capacity and are encouraged to have curbside pickup, as well as dedicated hours for seniors and at-risk populations. Offices are to operate at 10 percent capacity, meaning remote work is highly encouraged. Site-specific variances—such as for venues like the Denver Zoo or Denver Botanic Gardens—will be retained.

Based on metrics previously outlined by the state, many counties should already be under a stay-at-home order. But the new rules announced on Tuesday added another designation to the state’s COVID-19 dial. While Level Red used to be the highest classification, now it’s the just-added Level Purple: Extreme Risk, which includes the introduction of stay-at-home orders.

According to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment (CDPHE), the state will move a county to Level Red when it has a positivity rate—the percent of tests that come out positive out of the total number of tests performed—of more than 15 percent, 350 or more cases per 100,000 residents in a two-week period, or greater than two new COVID-19 hospital admissions per day for the past 14 days. To put these numbers in perspective, as of November 17, the seven-day average positivity rate in Denver is 12.7 percent, the two-week cumulative incidence rate is 1,121 per 100,000 residents, and the 14-day moving average for hospitalizations is 20.2. So, it’s likely we’ll be sitting at Level Red for quite some time.

Level Purple is defined by hospital capacity, standards of care, and access to personal protective equipment—such as if a county is utilizing alternative care sites (like the field hospital at the Colorado Convention Center) or is seeing a critical shortage of PPE or staff, or a hospital is approaching 90 percent of reported surge capacity. So in other words, Level Purple is dire situation in which our health care system is at risk of collapsing.

Polis sparked confusion during the press conference by not specifying which counties will move to Level Red. But Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who was also in attendance, said, “We expect to be there,” when asked if Denver will be one of the areas included. Later in the day, CDPHE released the list. In addition to the entire metro area, Clear Creek, La Plata, Logan, Mesa, Morgan, Routt, Summit, and Washington counties will move to Level Red.

During the briefing, Polis also announced that he is calling a special session of the Colorado General Assembly in hopes of introducing legislation that will provide economic relief for Coloradans struggling because of the pandemic. Polis, House Speaker-designate Alec Garnett, and Senate President Leroy Garcia all indicated that the session is necessary because federal relief seems unlikely.

“The calls for someone to step up and help have grown and grown and grown,” said Garnett. “Our state’s recovery could hinge on the next few months. January will be too late for too many small businesses and too many people on the verge of eviction or foreclosure.”

Dates for the session are yet to be determined, but the lawmakers said the topics they plan to tackle include relief for small businesses, housing and rental aid, and support for childcare services.

Polis praised news of an effective vaccine, but also explained that the next few months will be a critical bridge to the time when most of us will be inoculated. He continued to urge people to wear masks and avoid interacting with members of other households—even for the Thanksgiving holiday.

“Let’s do this Colorado,” said Polis. “We need to reach down into that reservoir of will power that we have and show the resolve to simply avoid socializing with others, to wear a mask, to be careful and cautious so we can save lives and get our economy going.”

Editor’s note: This is a developing story that will be updated as more information becomes available.

Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan
Shane Monaghan is the former digital editor of 5280.com and teaches journalism at Regis Jesuit High School.