Three metro Denver counties enact new mask mandates until COVID cases go back down

The boards of health for three metro Denver counties — Jefferson, Adams and Arapahoe — voted Monday evening to require almost everyone to once again wear masks in indoor public spaces, though businesses can be exempted if they require staff and customers to be vaccinated.

The Jeffco public health order, adopted by a 4-1 vote, requires adults and most children to wear masks in indoor public spaces, including retail stores, restaurants and gyms beginning Wednesday.

“The intent of this order is to slow the spread… so we don’t have any unnecessary deaths and so that we can preserve our hospital capacity,” Jeffco board member Kimberley Krapek said.

Kids younger than 3 are exempt from the Jeffco order, as are:

  • People who have a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a mask
  • First responders
  • People who rely on lip-reading, or are trying to communicate with someone who does
  • Performers in a show or leaders in a religious service, if they’re 12 feet from others
  • People in an enclosed room with only members of their household (for example, a private room in a restaurant)
  • Customers who need to remove a mask to eat or drink, or to receive a personal service or religious rite
  • Swimmers in a pool
  • People participating in individual sports, such as gymnastics, if they’re 25 feet from others

The Tri-County Health Department’s Board of Health voted 5-1 not long afterward to adopt a mask order similar to Jefferson County’s for Adams and Arapahoe counties. Douglas County, which still contracts with Tri-County for routine public health services, has resisted any efforts to reinstate mask mandates, to the point of setting up its own public health board.

Hospitalizations in Larimer County have fallen by about one-third since it implemented a mask mandate, said Dawn Comstock, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health. Neighboring Weld County’s hospitalizations haven’t fallen, suggesting masks are making a difference, she said.

Statewide hospitalizations rose to 1,565 on Monday afternoon, with 635 general beds and 81 intensive-care beds still available. Close to half of hospitals reporting to the state — 46% — said they expected to be short-staffed in the next week.

The week ending Sunday appeared to have almost 2,000 fewer cases than the previous week. That gap will likely narrow as delayed reports come in, though. Deaths continued to rise, reaching levels seen at the worst point of April 2020 in the first week of November.

There are some hopeful signs, because the number of new cases and the percentage of tests coming back positive dropped over the last few days, said Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health. It’s too early to know if that’s a trend or random fluctuation in the numbers, though.

Last year, there wasn’t a significant bump in cases post-Thanksgiving and hospitalizations peaked in early December, but it’s not clear if Colorado will follow the same path this year, Samet said.

“This year could be different, because it appears that far more people are going to be traveling,” he said.

Boulder, Pitkin and Larimer counties already have mask mandates in place. Generally, the metro-area counties try to synch up their public health orders, but Denver and Broomfield haven’t said if they plan to require masks again.

Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said the city would announce “some things” on Tuesday, but didn’t specify what they might be.

The Jefferson County mandate will be in effect until the county has had fewer than 50 cases for every 100,000 people for three weeks straight, and fewer than 8% of COVID-19 tests are positive. At that point, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention deems transmission “moderate” and no longer recommends requiring vaccinated people to wear masks.

As of Monday, Jefferson County had 345.2 cases for every 100,000 people over the previous week, and an average of 10.5% of tests were positive.

The increase in cases this fall has led to growing hospitalizations. Jefferson County’s rate of hospitalizations compared to population is about nine times what it was in early July: 2.41 per 100,000 people as of mid-November, compared to 0.26 per 100,000 in the summer.

Jefferson County already required masks in schools, child care facilities and county-owned buildings. People also have to mask up in nursing homes and jails and on public transit because of state and federal rules.

About 78% of Jefferson County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated. The state doesn’t list county data for children in the 5-to-11 age group, which recently became eligible.

The Infectious Disease Society of America estimates that at least 80% of the entire population needs to be immune to get the delta variant under control, though, because delta is more contagious than previous versions of SARS-CoV-2.  When a virus is more contagious, it’s more likely to find people who are unvaccinated or don’t have a strong immune response, through sheer numbers and luck.

Multiple metro-area health departments, including Jefferson County’s, sent a letter asking Gov. Jared Polis to enact a statewide mask mandate, but Comstock acknowledged that was “very unlikely.” Polis has repeatedly said any decisions on masks should happen locally.

Hundreds of people signed up to speak at the Jeffco Board of Health’s virtual meeting, though the public comment period was limited to two hours. Many were business owners who didn’t want to be tasked with enforcing a mandate. Fitness club owners had a particularly strong showing, asking for an exemption, for fear their clients would cross county lines or stop exercising altogether.

Parker Brown, a Westminster businessman, said he’s not opposed to a mask mandate, but doesn’t want his employees to be responsible for enforcing it.

“How do I ask my staff to sit there and debate the customers, when they’re 17 years old?” he said.

A significant number of commenters shared scientifically inaccurate information. A handful compared allowing businesses to require vaccines to racial segregation.

Board of Health member Cheri Jahn, who voted against the measure, also raised concerns about whether the order would “criminalize” business owners who were uncomfortable asking customers to wear masks.

“We’re putting them in control of people they have no control over,” she said.

Comstock said enforcement will focus on educating business owners and encouraging them to comply, and that most learned to live with the statewide mask mandate last year.

“This is not something businesses have never dealt with,” she said.

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