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Douglas County to opt out of mask mandate, moves to leave Tri-County Health Department

The saga between Tri-County and Douglas County isn't the only instance of friction between public health officials and elected politicians in Colorado since the coronavirus crisis began.

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From left: Douglas County commissioners Roger Partridge, Lora Thomas and Abe Laydon. (Handout)

In the latest coronavirus-related battle between elected officials and public health experts, Douglas County’s commissioners on Thursday announced plans to opt out of a mask mandate and move to leave the Tri-County Health Department, ending a 50-year partnership.

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“Effective immediately, our board directed staff to begin the work of creating a separate public health department that will appropriately meet the needs of Douglas County,” Roger Partridge, chairman of the board of commissioners, said in a written statement.

The Tri-County Health Department Board of Health on Wednesday voted to issue a mask mandate for the three counties it oversees — Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas. But the mandate left room for cities and counties to opt out of requiring people to cover their faces while in public.

Tensions between Tri-County and Douglas County’s commissioners have been simmering for months, however, and the mask mandate, intended to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, appears to have been the last straw. Douglas County is a largely conservative county.

The two sides clashed in March when Tri-County enacted a stay-at-home order as the coronavirus crisis first took hold in Colorado. Republican leaders in Douglas County were livid and began discussing the idea of leaving the public health agency.

Douglas County was also the site of a high-profile clash between Tri-County and state health officials and C&C Coffee and Korean Kitchen, a Castle Rock restaurant that reopened before it was allowed to under the state’s coronavirus restrictions.

Dr. John M. Douglas, who leads Tri-County, wrote in a letter to staff that he was “sorry to share the breaking news” about Douglas County’s plans. But he wrote that the county has been considering the idea of developing its own health department for the past several years.

“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,” Douglas wrote. “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.”

The saga between Tri-County and Douglas County isn’t the only instance of friction between public health officials and elected politicians in Colorado since the coronavirus crisis began.

Dr. Mark Wallace, executive director of the Weld County Department of Health and Environment, announced his resignation after pushing back on the Weld County Commission’s decision to flout Gov. Jared Polis’ pandemic restrictions.

In Rio Grande County, the chief public health official, Emily Brown, was fired, she says, because of her disagreement with their intention to loosen public health restrictions in late May.

“They finally were tired of me not going along the line they wanted me to go along,” she told Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press.


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