Denver stay-at-home order takes effect — after one final sunny afternoon

Denver residents couldn’t have asked for a nicer afternoon Tuesday to get in their final trips to clothing stores, playgrounds and at least one ice cream shop.

At 5 p.m., mobile phones blared with the city’s public safety alert. It was a notification most knew was coming: The city is effectively closed down for at least two weeks, the result of a stay-at-home order announced Monday by Mayor Michael Hancock that grants some exceptions. It’s the latest effort aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Those final hours allowed small moments of escape before the city retreats inside.

At Commons Park near downtown, dozens of people walked, threw balls for their dogs, lounged on the grassy hill under the sun and filled the air with laughter as they picnicked in groups — largely well-spaced from one another. Many of those activities, save for individual exercise, are now banned in parks.

Lauren Danielson, 36, and her partner, Rossinni Alba, 32, relished the fresh air as they kicked a soccer ball. They live nearby.

“Before this announcement, we had interactions with maybe one or two of our friends — like a total of four people over the last couple of weeks,” Danielson said. “We’re planning on cutting off any interaction with people that isn’t 6 feet away. I’m just trusting that they know what they’re talking about,” she said of city officials, “and that this is going to be what’s best. It’s not the worst thing in the world to be ordered to sit on my couch and watch TV.”

Hancock’s order also closes “nonessential businesses” and some public places. It will last until April 10, unless he decides to extend it.

The order allows residents to venture out to buy groceries, visit doctors, fill medications and exercise. And it includes a host of exemptions that allow some kinds of businesses to keep their doors open or their employees on site. But more Denver employers face a decision between shifting most employees to working from home Wednesday or, if that’s not an option, closing down temporarily.

Little Man Ice Cream took a cue from the city’s order and went on hiatus at 5 Tuesday at all of its Denver locations, though they weren’t required to. Some other ice cream shops are staying open, offering takeout or delivery service, but business has been slow for most, including Little Man.

Michael Pannier was among a half-dozen people in line a few minutes before 5 at its iconic giant milk can in Lower Highland, there to buy pints while his pregnant wife waited in the car.

In Stapleton, Central Park’s playgrounds — now closed — were popular throughout the afternoon, but some other parks, particularly in west Denver, offered quieter respite.

Chad Hadersbeck and Rory Conrad threw a Frisbee on the trail near Paco Sanchez Park. Conrad said they go to the park about twice a month and hope to keep doing so.

“I feel like everything changes day-to-day, but if that’s what we’ve got to do to keep everyone safe, we need to do it,” Hadersbeck said of the city’s new rules.

New restrictions in a new reality

Denver’s stay-at-home order was the first to be announced in the metro area, with Boulder and several other areas beginning to follow suit. So far, Gov. Jared Polis has held off on a statewide stay-at-home order.

Such an edict adds just a few more restrictions to the already-drastic changes many residents have made in just a couple weeks. But for those who have shirked the city’s and state’s prior guidance, the order means big changes.

In his announcement, Hancock lamented that Denver’s city’s parks drew huge crowds over the weekend. City parks will still be open, but the order prohibits pretty much any outdoor activity at them except for individual or family exercise. Playgrounds, dog parks, tennis and basketball courts, and golf courses will be closed.

“This isn’t a recommendation anymore,” Hancock said Monday.

Denver was still adjusting Tuesday evening. On East Colfax Avenue, foot traffic remained consistent as the deadline came and went, though there were fewer people than usual at that time. On the patio at Atomic Cowboy, couples sat and chatted around 5:45 p.m.

A couple hours earlier, Lorenzo Mathis, 36, killed time with his fiancee in front of Union Station downtown while waiting for a bus back home to Stapleton. His job at Walmart will continue feeding his five children, for now. But he was skeptical about Hancock’s action.

“I think it’s too early to make the right call. You’re sending out a big panic to millions of” metro-area residents, he said. “We saw what happened (Monday) as soon as they made the call.”

Hancock’s initial order inadvertently set off a mad rush to liquor stores and marijuana shops — even those outside city limits — causing the kinds of lines and crowds he meant to discourage. Hours later, the mayor reversed the decision to treat those businesses as nonessential.

Retail outlets slim down staffs or close

Other types of businesses aren’t so fortunate.

In Stapleton, the often-bustling streets and sidewalks of Northfield shopping center were unusually quiet at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday and eerily so an hour later, when employees erected large, red A-frame signs at the entrances to make the retail district’s closure official.

Whimsy Studios co-owner Stine Hildre said after seeing little traffic these past two weeks, the stay-at-home order has meant layoffs. The store will keep one full-time employee, plus her. Hildre’s husband and co-owner is a National Guard medic who’s helping with the coronavirus response.

“We’re switching our business model from in-studio painting classes to online painting classes,” Hildre said. “We have these to-go kits that people can take home — and then we have a video on our website, so they can follow along.”

The 16th Street Mall, too, was oddly quiet near Lower Downtown even before the deadline.

On Wazee Street, the iconic store Rockmount Ranch Wear was dark. But the notice in its window was optimistic: “When Papa Jack founded Rockmount in 1946 he weathered all kinds of challenges, same as all businesses over time. This too will pass.”

Even some small businesses that can stay open under the city’s order are struggling. Intermountain Radiator and Muffler on Federal Boulevard at West 25th Avenue has seen business nosedive, with about 10% of normal customer traffic coming through Tuesday, owner Riley Meehan said.

“I think it’s because people are scared,” said Meehan, who has had the shop for 40 years. Still, he feels the measures taken are necessary.

“The small businessman should really understand that they’re there to support society,” he said, “and it’s not the government’s job to support them.”

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