DENVER — Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order Thursday that requires most people to wear masks in all public indoor spaces, with some exceptions.
The order is effective for 30 days starting 12 a.m. Friday and applies to all Coloradans 11 years old or older.
Polis outlined several exceptions to the mask mandate, including: Eating at a restaurant; exercising alone; receiving a service such as a facial or beard trimming, where a mask would interfere; first responders (at their discretion); religious officiants; speaking to a televised audience; and having to remove a mask for purposes of identification.
Other exemptions to the mandate include those who medically can not tolerate a face covering — whether they have breathing troubles, are unconscious or incapacitated, or unable to remove a face covering on their own — and those who are hearing-impaired or are communicating with someone who is hearing-impaired.
Polis said Colorado's recent uptick in COVID-19 cases is "alarming enough" to justify taking further action to prevent the spread of the virus and protect the health of residents. Polis said state data shows that if Colorado continues on its current rate of increasing cases that state ICU capacity could be exceeded by September.
"There is a small window of opportunity," Polis said. "We're really on the knife's edge. ... Our lives depend on it and our economy depends on it."
Polis also announced a two-week pause on issuing new variances for counties and municipalities that hope to have relaxed COVID-19 guidelines.
Polis’ move comes after weeks of hand-wringing and questions about why he had not mandated mask-wearing statewide. He spent numerous news conferences strongly urging Coloradans to wear them, but also said that the state did not have enough enforcement capabilities to issue an order. He has told people to "wear a damn mask" and called those who aren't "selfish bastards."
Polis on Thursday said a data from a survey showed that 67% of people would wear a mask without a mandate but that number jumped to 83% with a mask mandate in place.
"What this basically shows is that areas with mask wearing requirements have had slower spread of virus," Polis said. "The virus has spread less in areas that have had mask-wearing orders by statistically a significant amount. That is an incredibly important data point for me in making this statewide."
Polis said wearing a mask "is not a political statement."
"It's simple," Polis said. "It's common sense and it's data. The virus doesn't care what political party you're in. ... The virus is the virus."
Polis was joined Thursday by Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who both strongly supported the mask mandate.
"This is a tremendous tool for all of Colorado as we continue efforts to get ahead of the spike," Hancock said.
Coffman — who said he wasn't initially in favor of a mask mandate when Colorado cases were in decline — said the recent uptick in cases makes the mandate necessary to avoid further business closures and shutdowns.
"Now it's different," Coffman said. "Now I'm worried."
Coffman said he's heard from some people that wearing a mask is a hardship.
"But I meet with small businesses every day that haven't been able to open up," Coffman said. "If things get worse, they will have to shutter again. That's a hardship. [Children] told they can't go back to school — that's a hardship. I think we need to put this in context. This is the least invasive approach we can do this time as a preventative strategy. We have got to get children back to school. We have got to open this economy."
Polis said violators of the mask mandate could be subject to civil or criminal penalties, including trespassing, if a customer enters a business without a mask. Business owners should refuse service to people not wearing masks, Polis said.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Robert Redfield told the Journal of the American Medical Association this week that the U.S. could get the COVID-19 pandemic under control in a month or two if all Americans wore face coverings in public.
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment State Epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy presented data at the news conference showing that growth in the number of cases and hospitalizations was starting to accelerate, as well as the virus’ reproductive value – which she said was now estimated as being between 1.6 and 1.8, up from two weeks ago when it was just above 1.
The models also showed that recent trends could put Colorado in line to exceed its ICU hospital bed capacity in September if changes are not made surrounding people’s wearing of masks, social distancing and other social behaviors now.
Herlihy said that there are a greater number of cases among people under 40, including children, than were seen early on, but that older people are again starting to be admitted to hospitals with the virus in increasing numbers.
Several Democratic lawmakers had called for a statewide mandate. Rep. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn, penned an op-ed published Thursday in the Colorado Sun calling for Polis to issue a mandate. He is an emergency room nurse who also worked in COVID-19 wards during the pandemic when the legislative session paused.
In an interview with Denver7 about the op-ed, Rep. Mullica said he's not surprised that the issue of masks has become controversial but he is disappointed.
"We have studies that are showing right now that upwards of 130,000 lives in the United States would be saved if we were at 95% mask use and over 120 lives by October 1 would be saved in Colorado if we got to the 95%," he said. "That’s what’s so frustrating, it’s so preventable and so easy and yet it’s being politicized."
During the interview with Denver7, Rep. Mullica said he hadn't heard from the governor about his plea for a statewide mask mandate. But a few minutes later, right before the press conference announcing mandatory masks, the governor called him back.
"We can’t be afraid of political fallout or politics, right now we have to do what’s right and what’s scientifically proven," Rep. Mullica said.
Democratic House leaders – Speaker KC Becker of Boulder and Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver – applauded the statewide order after it was announced.
“To stay on the right track and recover from this pandemic, we need to be smart and put on our masks. It helps our small businesses stay open, protects riders on public transit, and reduces your risk of contracting COVID-19 by 65 percent,” Garnett said in a statement. “This order is the right decision for Colorado, and I’m grateful for the leadership of so many counties, local officials and Governor Polis to encourage Coloradans to do their part.”
In Colorado, like much of the rest of the country, mask-wearing has become politicized — pitting public health officials and scientists, and those who follow their guidance, against those who believe that masks infringe on their personal freedoms despite increasing scientific evidence they stop help the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Several counties and local municipalities already have or will soon have mask mandates in place: Adams County, Arapahoe County, Boulder County, Clear Creek County, the city and county of Denver, Eagle County, Jefferson County, Larimer County, Routt County, Summit County, Aspen, Englewood Fort Collins, Glenwood Springs, Northglenn, Superior, Westminster, Denver International Airport and the Colorado Springs Airport.
House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, who has publicly sparred with Polis on the mask issue and whose home town has opted out of Tri-County Health’s mandate, said he is not happy with the mandate. In a news release, he tried to claim the opposite of what Herlihy had presented at the news conference regarding cases and hospitalizations going up statewide. He also tweeted that he intends to sue.
“Governor Polis is bowing to political pressures and letting the mob rule Colorado’s policies. I guess he has forgotten his campaign slogan 'A Colorado for all,' this mandate may fit areas like Denver but there are communities that haven't had a single case,” Neville said in a statement. “…Though we should maintain caution, we cannot let fear control us and the Governor still has not clearly laid out the metrics for success in combating COVID-19.”
Other Republican lawmakers have also started to speak out against the mask mandate as well.
Rep. Mark Baisley had applauded Douglas County for opting out of the mask mandate and said he feels the governor is overstepping his boundaries with this executive order.
"This is not the appropriate action of a governor. This is not the appropriate actions of a government by the people," Rep. Baisley said.
The state legislature can come together to overrule a mandate like this, but that is unlikely since Democrats control the House and Senate.
Rep. Baisley says many people have been wearing masks without an order and that residents and businesses will act in their own self-interest to stay safe.
He says he would support counties if they decided to try to not follow the governor's order.
"I would find it an appropriate action by the county and I would love for it to be my own of Douglas County to step up and say, 'Yeah we’re not gonna keep going down this path of autocracy'," Rep. Baisley said.
Denver7 asked the governor what would happen if a city or county decided not to comply with the order and whether funding would be withheld but didn't get a clear answer.
Rep. Basley also lamented the idea of the drain on law enforcement and other resources to enforce these rules.
"What a rotten position to put citizens (in), pitting them against each other," he said.
Tri-County Health issued a reminder Thursday saying that people should be wearing masks whether or not they are required to in their city, town or county.
“The purpose of the two-week time table was to give cities and counties the opportunity to prepare for the implementation of the mandate or opt-out,” said John M. Douglas, Jr., MD, Executive Director of Tri-County Health Department. “It was never intended to be a break in the health department’s advisement to wear a mask out in public. We strongly advise with or without a mandate that everyone that can, wear a mask every time they are outside of their home where six feet distance between themselves and others cannot be maintained.”
The Colorado Hospital Association said Thursday it supports a mandate.
“Colorado Hospital Association and our member hospitals and health systems across the state are supportive of a statewide mask mandate,” said CHA President and CEO Chris Tholen. “Our hospitals have worked closely with their local governments, Gov. Polis and his administration throughout our state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we know this step will be important to ensure that we are doing everything possible to set Colorado on the right trajectory.”