Colorado’s COVID-19 death toll topped 6,000 on Monday as hospital stays continue to slide slowly and the state continues to relax public health restrictions, allowing for additional restaurant space and a later final call in some areas.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported that 362 people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 were hospitalized on Monday afternoon. That’s a little less than a fifth the number of those hospitalized on the peak day of the last surge in early December, although the number has declined more slowly in recent weeks.

According to state data, deaths from COVID-19 in Colorado reached 6,022 on Monday.

The number of new deaths fell from 478 a week through December 6 to around 40 a week in the second half of February. Hopefully that trend will continue as vulnerable people are vaccinated, said Beth Carlton, associate professor of environmental and occupational safety at the Colorado School of Public Health.

On Monday evening, the state health ministry announced that it had further eased COVID-19 restrictions governed by its color-coded dial, postponing the last call for alcohol later to allow restaurants to accommodate more people and to make it harder, counties to bring it to a more restrictive level.

For Denver, which is on Yellow Level, that means diners can now order drinks until 1 a.m. instead of being cut off at 11 p.m., and restaurants and concerts can accommodate up to 150 people. Denver restaurants with the state’s 5-star certification can operate at blue level, which now means one last call at 2 a.m. and up to 225 diners.

The changes include:

  • Restaurants and indoor events, including casinos, can expand capacity to 150 people on the yellow level and 225 people on the blue level
  • The last call for alcohol in restaurants goes back to 2 a.m. on the blue level, 1 a.m. on the yellow level, midnight on the orange level and 10 p.m. on the red level
  • 5-star certified restaurants in Level Blue Counties may increase capacity by 50 people above the Level Blue caps
  • Performers at events wearing masks must be at least 12 feet from the spectators, while performers who do not wear masks must be at least 25 feet from the spectators.
  • Schoolchildren can take off masks in the classroom to play a musical instrument that otherwise cannot be played with a face covering, but students must physically distance themselves

The state reported 6,426 new coronavirus infections last week, suggesting the increase in cases in late February was more of a bump than a trend. Overall, the cases appear to have essentially plateaued, Carlton said.

“There is a lot of good news in this data,” she said. “I think the plateau is a cause for attention in cases.”

The next challenge will be the spring break, as people from areas of greater distribution may travel to Colorado to ski, Carlton said. However, it can be difficult to tell from the statewide data whether they transmitted the virus, as states take their breaks at different times.

It is still not clear what impact new variants of the virus are having in Colorado. The state has reported 190 cases that are due to “worrying variants”, that is, those that have worrying properties, such as easier spread. The vast majority come from variant B.1.1.7, which was first found in the UK and is considered more contagious and severe.

The state health department announced on Sunday evening that three people associated with the Buena Vista Correctional Complex had tested positive for variant B.1.351, which was first found in South Africa. Two are employees and one is an inmate. It’s not clear whether staff caught the virus in prison or brought it from a nearby community, but there are likely more cases the state hasn’t found, Carlton said.

“We probably only see the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

Vaccines are highly effective against B.1.1.7, but may be less effective against B.1.351. Still, it’s important to vaccinate people as soon as possible to limit the ways the variants can spread and reduce the chances of new ones developing, Carlton said.

“Any time a virus replicates (copied into a person’s cells), there is a chance it could mutate,” she said.