DENVER — The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment (DDPHE) has ordered the closure of a mail facility that handles all mail for Colorado and Wyoming.

The public health order was issued on Thursday to the United States Postal Service (USPS) Processing and Distributing Center at 7550 E. 53rd Place in Denver, following an investigation the day prior.

The state of Colorado has confirmed five employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at the facility that employs 1,800.

DDPHE issued the closure order even though investigators were unable to see inside the distribution facility. The order states:

"Minimal observations were made during the site visit conducted 5/20/2020 at 12:30 p.m. due to the refusal of information and access to the facility. The area the investigators were able to make observations from was a small public-facing space in comparison to the entire distribution warehouse buildings. In the general public post station with three employees assisting customers with proper face coverings and plastic curtains separating each employee check-out station."

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"The challenge that we’re facing right now is we don’t have a great connection with local contacts for USPS, and so we’re not able to collect all the information that we need, and so in a situation like that we would temporarily close the facility until we are able to get all the information and implement controls that we need to," said Danica Lee, Director of Public Health Inspections with DDPHE.

Lee is also the Deputy Public Health Official for Denver's COVID-19 response.

"In terms of how disease needs to be controlled in a facility, it doesn’t matter if it’s a federal facility or a local business, we need to get the same type of information and implement the same types of controls to keep employees and the public safe," said Lee.

She said it's likely there are more than the five reported cases of COVID-19 at the facility, but the city can't be sure without cooperation.

"Unless we're working with the facility management to help us identify additional cases, we’re not able to get a really good set of information about how many cases there are in that facility," said Lee.

According to a spokesman with USPS, the Denver distribution center handles 10 million pieces of mail per day for 6.3 million people in Colorado and Wyoming, making it the postal service's fourth-largest distribution site in the country.

DDPHE orders that the facility closes until the following can be completed:

  • The facility receives a complete disinfection of all surfaces with an approved COVID-19 disinfectant
  • COVID-19 control measures are implemented
  • Control plans and procedures for how facility will implement with the COVID-19 control measures and comply with this public health order are submitted in writing to DDPHE

The control measures include:

  • Screening employees at the start and end of each shift
  • Temperature checks
  • Employees reporting illness be sent home immediately
  • Required face coverings
  • Monitor all employees for symptoms and good hygienic practices
  • Prevent symptomatic employees from working until they are fever-free for 72 hours and 10 days have passed since first symptom
  • Disinfect the entire facility
  • Provide a list of confirmed cases within 24 hours and every Monday by noon until DDPHE no longer requests list

"Just handling mail is not considered a high-risk activity try terms of contracting COVID. We still want to make sure that we are minimizing all risks and putting controls in place," said Lee. "Certainly, this is a federal facility, we recognize that there are limitations to local authority. We do have our city attorney’s office involved in reviewing where our health authority ends and where the federal authority begins."

USPS spokesperson David Rupert tells 9NEWS that they have been in conversations with the city in hopes of reaching a resolution, but he feels certain the city will not shut down the distribution center.

"This is a federal facility. It’s protected by federal law enforcement officers," he said. "It will not be shut down."

As of Thursday night, Rupert said the facility is running and there will be no mail delays.

"The postal service was a luxury for a lot of people before. Now it’s a necessity especially during these COVID times because checks are coming in, stimulus checks are coming in. We’re in the middle of an election. We also have medications. We’re keeping people alive," Rupert told 9NEWS. "So you talk about essential? This is an essential service and this is the most essential post office and postal facility that we have."

USPS provided 9NEWS with a formal statement, writing that it disagrees with the city and maintaining its essential status:

"The Denver Processing and Distribution Center is federally owned and operated and is committed to all federal and CDC directives and safeguards in regards to COVID-19 protection. 

We strongly disagree with the [DDPHE] order, which was made without a visual verification, without advanced coordination with the team of postal employees working on these issues with [DDPHE], and without the understanding of the Postal Service’s substantial, ongoing efforts to protect its employees and the public.

This closure notice, citing no adverse findings, has the potential to impact stimulus checks, prescription medications, personal correspondence, and vital goods delivered to the more than 6.5 million customers who live in Colorado and Wyoming. 

We have provided [DDPHE] the necessary documentation to satisfy their inquiry and are confident the order will be rescinded. 

The Postal Service is an entity of the Federal Government, and the provision of postal services to the American people is designated as an essential function under federal law during times of emergency. The postal system is used to deliver, among other things, important governmental information and benefits, mail that is essential to the functioning of our economy, elections materials, and packages containing vital necessities, including medicines and other goods, and is a part of the nation’s critical infrastructure."

DDPHE, too, sent a formal statement on its decision:

"The Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) has responded to clusters of COVID-19 cases involving multiple employees at several USPS locations over the last week. As part of any outbreak investigation, we work with facility management to obtain information about ill employees, identify common exposures, and implement practices to prevent disease transmission and ensure the safety of employees and the public. In this case, however, the USPS not only failed to provide the necessary information, but they have not allowed inspections to support complete outbreak investigations. It certainly is not our intent to halt the delivery of mail or shut down an essential federal facility. This was a measure of last resort, and the only remaining tool we have to get the facility management’s attention and secure public health compliance during a pandemic. DDPHE and the City Attorney are committed to resolving these concerns with federal authorities quickly."

On May 14, DDPHE issued a closure order for the USPS location at 3800 Buchtel Blvd. The health department investigator found a "lack of implemented control measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the facility.

USPS did not shut down that location.

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If you have information about the USPS facilities or have a news tip, contact Marshall Zelinger at marshall@9news.com.

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