Tri-County Health to order masks in Adams, Arapahoe, Douglas counties

Acknowledging the rise in COVID-19 cases, the Tri-County Health Department’s Board of Health voted Wednesday to order a mask requirement across Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties — but offered municipalities within those counties the ability to opt out.

The board voted 5-4 to direct Tri-County Health Executive Director John Douglas to draft an order requiring people to wear face coverings when entering indoor public spaces, including businesses, as well as in outdoor public places where six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained.

“Our decisions are based on science and the experts that we’re hearing from,” said board member Julie Mullica, who represents Adams County, during a video-conference meeting of the Board of Health. “Politics aside, that should be the uniform message for our three jurisdictions.”

The order — which, once issued, would be in effect for 90 days if not extended — would be similar to mandates put in place this spring by Denver and other metro-area and mountain counties and municipalities.

Members of the board noted that masks have become a divisive political issue, and granted the elected governments of any municipality within Tri-County’s jurisdiction — the three counties and 26 cities and towns — the ability to vote to opt out of the mask mandate. The counties, though, only would have the power to opt-out their unincorporated areas.

The board members who voted against the mandate largely noted they favor mask usage, but either thought such orders should be left to municipal governments or that they won’t be effective.

Thomas Fawell, who represents Arapahoe County, said he felt it’s simply too late, that people already have aligned themselves into camps of mask-wearers and those who refuse and won’t be persuaded to cover their faces — especially if there aren’t serious enforcement efforts.

“Our time for educating the public was at the beginning,” he said.

Tri-County Health officials noted they’d received a letter of support for a mask mandate signed by about a dozen mayors within the health department’s jurisdiction, including Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, who last week tweeted a statement saying he would back any efforts by Tri-County to require face coverings.

The move by Tri-County comes as Colorado has experienced three consecutive weeks of rising coronavirus infections and, more recently, a slight uptick in COVID-19 hospitalizations. Cases have been slowly increasing in Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, Douglas told the board.

As this has been happening, Douglas said, the use of face masks in those counties does not appear to be increasing. The health department sends people to grocery store parking lots to watch shoppers as they enter and count how many are wearing masks, he said.

Tri-County health officials have found that mask usage is around 80% in Arapahoe County, hovering in the mid-70s in Douglas County and around 60% in Adams County.

“Adams is clearly not just not going up, Adams has gone done,” Douglas said.

As individual municipalities weigh mask orders — Englewood approved such a mandate Monday night — Gov. Jared Polis has resisted imposing a statewide requirement, as some of his counterparts, including in Texas, have done in recent weeks. Instead, he has left those decisions to local health officials and municipal governments.

“The science clearly shows that the more people who wear masks, the faster our economic re-opening can safely occur and the more freedom and mobility we have,” Conor Cahill, the governor’s press secretary, said in a statement Wednesday. “We’ve got to crush this virus in Colorado, and wearing masks in public is one of the most effective tools we have.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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