PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- Amid a concerning increase in positive COVID-19 cases, Pueblo city and county officials issued a stern public warning about what could be next if the number of cases doesn't decline.
Officials said if the spike in cases remains high through Oct. 30 -- a ten-day period -- they'll be forced to return to restrictive health orders reminiscent of the "Stay at Home" and "Safer at Home" orders issued by Gov. Jared Polis earlier in the pandemic.
"That means businesses would be at 25% capacity," said Pueblo County Health Department Director Randy Evetts. "Our variances would go away. So, bars would likely have to close. The capacity for indoor and outdoor events would decrease. All of these things have a drastic impact on our local economy and our local businesses."
The county has 413 positive cases so far this month, compared to 224 last month. The October number is the highest since the pandemic began in March. The county has had 13 COVID outbreaks this month.
In a press conference Tuesday on the Riverwalk, officials cited large family gatherings as a significant contributor to the spike in cases.
The owner of a Pueblo bakery said she understands how.
"I go to the park and I see people having birthday parties and picnics," she said. "I see 40 to 50 people at a gathering when there should be 5 to 10. And few of them are wearing masks. It's no wonder there are so many cases."
Officials expressed concern about the pandemic during the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, times when large family gatherings are common and traditional.
Among the immediate steps to be taken: Only skeleton crews will be working at city offices and the county will have more virtual work stations. Increasing the frequency of COVID testing is also being planned.
Anyone needing to conduct business at city offices is asked to do so by phone, online or by making an appointment.
Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradisar said the change starts Wednesday and continues through Nov. 2.
Boards and commissions will meet online rather than in person, the mayor said.
Officials urge people to continue wearing masks, social distance and wash and sanitize hands often.
"Even after all this time, there still are not enough people doing it," said Gradisar. "If we don't turn this situation around quickly, we'll have no choice but to take stronger measures."
Gradisar recommended that parents avoid taking their kids door-to-door for trick-or-treating on Halloween.
"Find a safer alternative," he said. "Halloween needs to be different this year. Being in a large family group on one holiday could mean that you spend the next holiday in an intensive care unit, or on a ventilator. You need to consider that. There are no good choices, only good decisions."
Gradisar said that officials will hire more contract tracers to help control the spread of the virus.
"We're all tired of it," he said of the virus. "But we're going to have to live with it for at least the next six months, maybe longer."
Timothy Mottet, president of Colorado State University-Pueblo, said campus officials will announce a COVID mitigation plan Wednesday.
"My team and I talked (Tuesday) morning and asked what we can do to help," he said. "Only 30% of our 3,800 students are learning on campus. We want to be proactive with the city and county, and have a consistent message."
The county also is seeing an increase in COVID hospitalizations, with 20 as of Monday.
Pueblo County also announced it will begin taking applications Wednesday for $500,000 in grants to local businesses and nonprofits. The money will come from the federal CARES Act fund for pandemic recovery, with an emphasis on businesses that will be affected by the pandemic during the winter.
Those interested in applying should visit: http://www.county.pueblo.org.