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Denver metro counties considering implementing indoor mask mandates this week

Public health officials say they want regional approach for metro area absent state action
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Posted at 6:30 PM, Nov 22, 2021

DENVER – The Jefferson County Board of Health adopted a new public health order Monday that requires people ages 3 and up to wear a mask while indoors, and the Tri-County Health Department voted to approve a similar mandate that applies to people ages 2 and up.

And Denver issued a public health order Tuesday that requires people to wear masks indoors and implements a vaccine passport program which will take effect on Wednesday. Boulder and Larimer counties already require masks be worn indoors.

Broomfield County issued a public health order that requires people ages 2 and up to wear masks in all City and County of Broomfield facilities. People who are fully vaccinated can opt out if they show proof of being fully vaccinated. The order will be in effect from Dec. 1 through Dec. 31.

"Thank you to Broomfield's local businesses and nonprofits who have voluntarily stepped up to strongly encourage or require masks indoors, and allow fully vaccinated individuals to opt out with proof of vaccination," the city and county said in a news release. "If at any time the data indicates a need for more or less mitigation measures, Broomfield is prepared to act swiftly in response."

The Jefferson County board voted 4-1 after hearing from other local public health directors, 45 minutes of consulting with its attorneys and two hours of public testimony in which most of the speakers said they were opposed to the mask requirements. Hundreds of emails were also sent to the board regarding the order, and dozens of people protested the proposal on Monday morning at the public health building. Cheri Jahn was the lone vote against the measure.

The new mask requirement for Jefferson County will take effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and will stay in effect until the county sees 21 straight days of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers moderate or low transmission rates. Moderate transmission is anything less than 50 new cases per 100,000 people over the past seven days. Jefferson County is currently seeing high transmission, according to the CDC, and has a case rate of 418 per 100,000.

The board of health agreed to revisit the measure at a meeting in December. It also changed the originally drafted order to apply to people ages 3 and up instead of people ages 2 and up.

The county is working to set up the ability for businesses and facilities to except themselves from the mask requirement order if they can prove all employees, staff, guests and customers going inside are fully vaccinated, according to the order.

There are also exceptions to the order for people who cannot medically tolerate masks, people with certain disabilities, for when people are eating or drinking and in certain public safety and religious settings.

Failure by a business to comply with the order could result in a statute violation, but the board said the county would not be arresting or citing violators. Comstock said if a complaint is received about a business, staff would reach out to the business and speak with them on guidance and education on the order. Multiple violations could lead to an inspection and enforcement, she said.

The public health order says that because of the delta variant, at least 80% of the population needs to be fully vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But as of Nov. 15, 75.6% of the eligible population and 72% of the total population had gotten at least one vaccine dose, which the order says “is far short of the percentage of the population needed to reach herd immunity.”

Hospitalizations in the county have also risen sharply. The 14-day hospitalization rate in Jefferson County was 2.41 per 100,000 from Nov. 1 through Nov. 15 compared to 0.26 per 100,000 in early July.

The public health order says the current hospitalization rate per 100,000 is higher now than it was at this point last year, when both Jefferson County and the state reached their highest hospitalization peaks in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Other Colorado counties have recently implemented universal Face Covering orders, which have significantly increased the incidence of mask wearing,” the public health order says.

Lexi Nolen, the deputy director for Boulder County Public Health whose order formed the basis for the Jefferson County order, showed data at Monday’s meeting that showed how much mask-wearing increased in Boulder and Larimer counties after the mandates went into effect compared to other counties.

The Jefferson County Board of Health sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis last week calling on him to issue a statewide indoor mask requirement. That letter came after two different letters sent by local public health directors, including Jefferson County’s, the week beforehand that called for Polis to put a mask mandate back in place.

“While statewide action to increase masking would likely be most effective, based on many discussions over past several weeks, very unlikely that CDPHE will take this step,” read one of the slides Comstock presented Monday. “If the State is unwilling to act, Metro wide action to implement mask mandates can provide benefit given size of our population and number of hospitalizations.”

“Currently Jefferson, Denver, Tri-County (Adams and Arapahoe), and Broomfield Counties are all considering implementing mask mandates over the next few days, which—combined with Boulder County—would create the sort of uniform approach across most of the Metro area that our municipal elected officials and businesses have indicated that they prefer,” the slide goes on to say.

The slide also said that mandates should be implemented as soon as possible and continue until Colorado’s hospital capacity has improved. If Colorado remains on its current trajectory of COVID-19 spread, there is a 48% chance hospital capacity is overwhelmed in the next several weeks, according to modeling data that was also presented at Monday's meeting.

On Monday, there were 1,565 hospital beds in use involving people with confirmed COVID-19 cases. Ninety-three percent of acute care beds across the state were in use, as were 95% of intensive care unit beds.

The TCHD board of health issued a rationale and summary for its proposed mask mandate, which the board approved Monday evening in a 5-1 vote.

The order, as drafted, would also go into effect at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday and would stay in effect until at least Jan. 3 and until ICU bed capacity in the region hits the 10% threshold and stays there for 14 days.

It would apply to people ages 2 and up and would have similar exemptions as Jefferson County’s mandate, and the board will also consider a voluntary vaccine verification program for businesses and events.

As of Monday evening, 100% of Arapahoe County ICU beds were being used and 93% were in use in Adams County.

“While getting vaccinated is still the best way to prevent transmission of COVID-19, we could still breach hospital capacity if we do not take additional prevention measures,” said TCHD Executive Director John M. Douglas. “Masking indoors provides us another tool to keep ICU beds available for people coming in for a range of conditions such as heart attacks and auto accidents that need those beds.”

But Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, the mayor pro tem and four Republican council members and members-elect wrote to City Manager Jim Twombly Tuesday asking the city’s code enforcement department to only enforce state rules.

They said that since the city is in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties – and since Douglas County does not have a mask mandate after leaving Tri-County and making its own health department – that it will be difficult to enforce in Aurora. According to Douglas County, an estimated 2,900 Aurora residents live there.

“The decision of the Douglas County Board of Commissioners to leave Tri-County Health Department has placed the City of Aurora in a situation where the new mandate will not evenly apply to all our city’s residents,” the letter said. “We believe that in order to maintain a consistent enforcement policy across our city, in all three counties, with differing mask requirements, that Aurora should continue to follow guidelines set forth by the State of Colorado as it relates to the issue of mask mandates.”

The group said it wants the city to follow state rules but also allow the respective counties to enforce their requirements.

Michael Brannen, a spokesperson for the city, said it was still awaiting the order from Tri-County Tuesday morning.

"Once the city has received the order, we will review it with our legal department and determine our role with the order," Brannen said.

Denver7's Pattrik Perez contributed to this report.