DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. – The Board of Douglas County Commissioners on Thursday directed the county’s attorney to begin the process of withdrawing from the Tri-County Health Department over their displeasure with a mask mandate – from which the county can and is working to opt out – which was authorized by the TCHD Board of Health on Wednesday.
County Commission Board Chair Roger Partridge said in a statement that the county will work to create its own public health department “that will appropriately meet the needs of Douglas County.”
In addition to directing the county attorney to start the withdrawal process, it also directed the attorney to formally notify TCHD that it was opting out of the coming mandate.
Tri-County Health Department Executive Director John M. Douglas, Jr., M.D. showed data to the board of health Wednesday showing that about 75% of people in Douglas County – through an informal survey in which people with a clipboard counted how many people walked in and out of stores while wearing masks – were wearing masks at stores. Douglas County also has the lowest case rate and positivity rate out of the three counties covered by Tri-County Health.
He also initially recommended to the board that Douglas County not need a mask mandate as he believed Adams County did. The board then decided, after much discussion, to authorize Douglas to issue a mask mandate for all of Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties, though the counties and local municipalities inside them are allowed to opt out.
Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon pointed to that in a statement Thursday about why the commission decided to go this route.
“Regarding the mask mandate opt-out, our remarkably favorable public health data, paired with the community’s current 75% mask-wearing voluntary compliance observed by TCHD, and based on Dr. Douglas’ recommendation that a mask mandate was not necessary for Douglas County, led us to this conclusion,” said Commissioner Abe Laydon.
Commissioner Lora Thomas said the board questions “the enforceability and efficacy of the mask mandate order” and believes that citizens should “continue doing what they do.”
In an interview with Denver7 Thursday night, Thomas reiterated what Douglas, the TCHD executive director, previously said: That Douglas County didn't need a mandatory mask mandate because of how cases were trending.
"We had been telling our residents, 'don’t worry about this meeting, it does not pertain to Douglas County' and then, suddenly, it did," Thomas said. "We just felt like the board of health was not really representing our citizens. When the board of health completely disregarded the recommendation of Dr. Douglas that’s when we really felt that this board was no longer interested in the direct needs of our citizens and that’s what this is all about."
She went on to say that their phones had been ringing nonstop and that, at last count, out of 501 phone calls they received, 415 asked that Douglas County opt out of the mask mandate.
When asked by Denver7 if Douglas County commissioners had looked at the cost of forming another public health department, Thomas said they had not. When asked if that's something that should be considered before making a decision to leave TCHD, Thomas replied by stating that it was really good question, adding:
"We really believe this is the right decision for out citizens and it’s all about choices."
One TCHD Board of Health member out of three from Douglas County -- Paulette Joswick, RN – voted in favor of the three-county mandate with the opt-out option. The other two -- Marsha Jaroch, NP, and Vice President Zachary Nannestad, MPH – said they felt it was not necessary.
Douglas and many of the board members lamented that wearing a mask had become the latest thing regarding the COVID-19 pandemic to be politicized. In March, right after the TCHD issued a stay-at-home order ahead of the state’s statewide order, six Republican lawmakers from Douglas County demanded the commissioners terminate the contract with the health department, calling the order then a “heavy-handed application of governmental power.”
The directive from the Douglas County commissioners came just hours after Gov. Jared Polis said he had not ruled out issuing a statewide mask mandate but was happy that about 60% of the state was now covered by mask mandates. The municipalities with mandates generally require them for when people are indoors around others from outside their household, or outdoors and cannot stay 6 feet apart from other people.
But Polis also said that the current number of about 70% of Coloradans wearing masks was far too low and needed to be closer to 85% or 90%.
“If I haven’t been clear, I’m telling you to wear a mask,” Polis said. “Wear a damn mask!”
The commissioners ended their Thursday news release regarding the directives with a message about how to stay safe during the COVID-19 pandemic, which said that wearing a cloth face covering is among the most important steps to take, along with a link to the CDC’s guidance about face coverings.
Some board of health members had said they believe continuing education and not a mandate were the best options for their counties.
Douglas, the TCHD executive director, wrote in a letter the TCHD staff Thursday evening that the decision by the commissioners would make things “particularly challenging” during the pandemic but said the full process would take a year:
“I am sorry to share the breaking news that after intermittent consideration of the idea of developing their own health department for the past several years, the Douglas County Commissioners formally decided this afternoon to pursue that option. After 50+ years of partnership, there is never a good time for such a decision, but its occurrence in the midst of the COVID pandemic is particularly challenging.
“The process of withdrawing from a district health department requires a year, so this change will not be imminent and our expectation is that we will continue to provide service to Douglas County for the next 12 months. We are aware that this development will create questions for all of our staff and we will begin the process of determining what this transition will mean for TCHD and all who work here as soon as possible. Our goal will be to keep the well-being of our staff and the health of the residents of Douglas County first and foremost in mind as we manage this change.”
In Colorado, several counties and local municipalities already have mask mandates in place: Boulder County, Clear Creek County, the city and county of Denver, Eagle County, Larimer County, Routt County, Summit County, Aspen, Englewood Fort Collins, Glenwood Springs, Northglenn, Superior, Westminster, Denver International Airport and the Colorado Springs Airport.
Denver7 reporter Adi Guajardo contributed to this report.