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Colorado’s governor issues statewide mask mandate days after saying such a requirement is unenforceable

The move comes as the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations has been rising in Colorado over the past several weeks

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters while wearing a mask in Centennial on Friday, April 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday, facing pressure from the medical community and Democratic state lawmakers, issued a statewide mandate requiring Coloradans to wear a mask when in indoor public spaces.

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The mask order takes effect on Friday and lasts through at least Aug. 15. It applies to anyone older than age 10.

Masks must also be worn by people who are waiting outdoors for a taxi, bus, light rail, car service, rideshare or other mass transit or similar transportation service.

Violators may be “subject to civil or criminal penalties, including but not limited to prosecution for trespass,” the order says. 

Businesses must post signs about the mandate and “must refuse entry or service to people who are not wearing masks,” the governor’s office says.

“No mask, no service. It’s simple, ” Polis said as he announced the order at a news conference at the governor’s mansion. “… This is a law like any other.”

MORE: Read Gov. Jared Polis order enacting a statewide mask-wearing mandate.

Polis said data shows that the virus has spread less in areas of the state that have implemented a mask-wearing mandate. There are 39 Colorado
counties and municipalities that already have mandatory mask orders in place.

He said those numbers played heavily into his decision to issue the statewide order. He also didn’t think it was sustainable to ask people to navigate a mosaic of rules.

People who cannot tolerate a face covering are exempt from the mandate, as are people who are hearing impaired or who are communicating with someone who is hearing impaired. A mask does not need to be worn when a person is seated at a restaurant, is exercising alone or with people from their own household, or when they are receiving a personal service. First responders are also exempt, as are those officiating a religious service or giving a speech for broadcast to an audience.

The governor’s order comes just days after he called such a requirement unenforceable and said local governments are better positioned to implement and enforce mask-wearing rules. 

“There’s no ability the state has to enforce it,” he said last week.

But the number of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations has been rising over the past several weeks. Polis has called Colorado’s current trajectory unsustainable, hinting that a course correction is needed.

“The data is beginning to be alarming,” Polis said, explaining that hospitals could be overrun by September if the current trends don’t change. He said he’s hopeful local law enforcement will help ensure the mandate is followed.

Gov. Jared Polis, right, announces a statewide mask mandate on Thursday, July 16, 2020. He is flanked by Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Dr. Rachel Herlihy, Colorado’s state epidemiologist, said that on average each person infected with coronavirus is now spreading the disease to just under two others. That’s an ominous, sobering sign that the disease could soon spread exponentially in Colorado when it had been mostly stagnant.

Herlihy also said that out-of-state visitors who have been flocking to Colorado could be partially to blame for the uptick in cases and hospitalizations.

“A large number of our cases are not certain where their infection was acquired from, which is obviously concerning,” Herlihy said.

Perhaps more troubling, she said, is that increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases across the country have strained the testing system once again. Private labs — which handle most COVID-19 testing in Colorado — are reporting turnaround times of more than a week in some cases.

State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy speaks at a news conference on COVID-19, the coronavirus, on March 3, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

That means, by the time someone learns they’re infected, they may have already passed the virus onto someone else, who may have spread the virus to others before the first person’s test result even comes back.
Public officials over the last two weeks told The Colorado Sun that they have so far been able to keep up with investigating and and tracing the contacts for the rising number of cases they are seeing. But Herlihy’s concerns about testing add a new layer to the discussion.

“It really makes our case investigation and contact tracing so much less effective — in some cases perhaps not effective at all — if those test results are delayed substantially,” she said. “… It’s really problematic and I think hampering — not just Colorado — but nationally our case investigation and contact tracing efforts.”

MORE: As coronavirus cases rise, Colorado officials say contact-tracing efforts are keeping up, so far

In recent days, pressure has mounted on Polis to issue a statewide mask order. After a request from the Colorado Association of Local Public Health Officials, the state Board of Health on Wednesday voted unanimously to recommend that Polis issue such an order. A straw poll of frontline medical workers who are part of a subgroup of the Governor’s Expert Emergency Epidemic Response Committee also showed unanimous support for a statewide mask mandate.

Polis’ decision is likely to further enrage his detractors, in particular Republicans who have been critical of his use of power during the pandemic. They’ve pushed for Colorado to reopen more quickly to stem the economic impacts of the pandemic and also asked the governor to consult with them more.

From left, Kent Smith, Isaac Dowling, 2, Megan Dowling and Ann Smith attend the opening day of the Palisade Farmers’ Market in Palisade, Colo., Sunday, June 14, 2020. Market vendors are required to wear masks and shoppers are asked to maintain one-way traffic patterns. The weekly market runs every Sunday through Sept. 20. (Barton Glasser, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But mask-wearing has become a contentious, even political, issue across Colorado, leading to tense confrontations at city council and county commissioner meetings, as well as at businesses.

Colorado House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican, called the mandate unconstitutional, though he didn’t explain why he believes the requirement is against the law. “Gov. Polis is bowing to political pressures and letting the mob rule Colorado’s policies,” Neville said in a written statement Thursday.

The governor on Tuesday appeared to acknowledge that friction when asked about the possibility of issuing a statewide mask mandate.

“It’s a tough one to wrestle with, because like most Coloradans, I believe in bodily autonomy,” he said Tuesday. “I believe that people should make their choices. But the reason this issue is more complex is because it’s not so much about your rights. It’s also about protecting the right to live of those who are impacted by your decisions.”

Polis compared a mask-wearing rule to speed limits: some rules have to be enacted to keep the general public safe. 

“This is the least bad of the options we have at our disposal,” Polis said.

The governor has asked Coloradans to “wear a damn mask” and called people who refuse to cover their faces “selfish bastards” and “stupid.” He was hopeful that he could avoid issuing a mandate by using reasoning and sharing data with the public that shows wearing masks is the best course of action. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends mask wearing, and studies have shown the practice dramatically reduces disease transmission and, in turn, deaths.  One study published last month in the journal Health Affairs concluded that mask mandates in the United States may have averted 230,000 to 450,000 cases of COVID-19 between March 31 and May 22 in jurisdictions that imposed them.

But compliance has been less than stellar, the governor said. He hopes mandating masks will help level off the increase in COVID-19 cases in Colorado.

At a Thursday meeting of the Governor’s Emergency Epidemic Response Committee, which consists of health professionals from across multiple disciplines that gives Polis advice on how to manage the pandemic, members debated whether a mask mandate will be effective even if the state cannot enforce it. Many concluded it would be — though they said education will be needed to encourage people to wear masks the right way and to avoid confrontations over masks, which in some instances have resulted in violence.

“The goal here is educational, voluntary and societal pressure to push that mask percentage up,” said Dr. Daniel Pastula, a state Board of Health member who also sits on the GEEERC.  “Obviously I don’t think anyone likes wearing them. But at least temporarily to break this pandemic, it’s a pretty low (requirement) with some good evidence behind it.”

Polis’ executive order says wearing face coverings could reduce the spread of COVID-19 infections by as much as 65%. It also cited a study from Goldman Sachs that concluded that a federal mask mandate could save the U.S. economy from taking a 5% hit to the Gross Domestic Product.

Fabiola Roque sews face masks at Phunkshun Wear in Denver. Phunkshun Wear donates a mask for every mask they sell. (Kevin Mohatt, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The Colorado mandate comes as a growing number of U.S. states have issued similar orders, including Texas and Alabama, which have been loath to implement restrictions on their citizens. 

Georgia on Wednesday went the opposite direction, with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp forbidding local governments from requiring people to wear masks.

Polis’ path to issuing the mask mandate was almost identical to his deliberations over whether to issue a stay-at-home order in March, when the pandemic first descended on Colorado. He similarly called a stay-at-home requirement unenforceable before reversing course days later and forcing Coloradans to avoid going out in public.

Polis also made his stay-at-home order decision after officials in Denver and across the metro area went first.

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, who was also at Thursday’s news conference, thanked Polis for the statewide order. He said the mandate makes Colorado an example for the nation.

Also at the briefing was Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, a Republican, who said he hoped the statewide mandate would prevent further restrictions from being put in place.

“I know there is going to be some grumbling about this. I get that,” Coffman said. “I think we need to put it in context. This is really the least invasive approach we can do at this time as a preventative strategy.”

Coffman said that the statewide mask mandate is really the only effective way to ensure that people are covering their noses and mouths. He cited how Aurora is a city of commuters, where people leave to go to work and come in for their jobs.

Gov. Jared Polis, center, announces a statewide mask mandate on Thursday, July 16, 2020. He is flanked by Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman, on the left, and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Earlier this month, researchers from several universities in Colorado released a report looking a mobility patterns across the state and how they may impact the efficacy of local public health regulations

The report found that there is substantial cross-county movement in Colorado, especially in the Denver metro area. Douglas County, in particular, sees a lot of cross-county movement, with strong links to Jefferson, Arapahoe, Elbert and El Paso counties.

That means, the report concluded, more restrictive regulations in some counties may not be effective in slowing the pandemic if the social interaction that is driving rising case numbers in those counties actually occurs in less-restrictive counties.

“That is,” the report explains, “the metrics identifying ‘unsafe’ levels/trajectories of cases/hospitalizations are being measured with one set of boundaries, while the risk-driving social contacts span outside those boundaries — in which case, the interventions may therefore not have the intended consequences.”

Updated at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, July 17, 2020: This story has been updated to correct that the mask mandate applies to anyone older than 10 years old.

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