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With an outdoor mask mandate in the city of Denver, the majority of visitors to shops and restaurants along W. 32nd Ave. in the Highlands neighborhood are abiding by the rule on November 7, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Even as Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday unveiled tighter coronavirus restrictions he hopes will avoid the need for a harsh lockdown, the head of the state’s largest local public health agency said he’s not sure whether the measures will be enough.

But Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of Tri-County Health Department, said he is also cautiously optimistic the new restrictions could make a meaningful impact on the state’s surging numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
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“I think it’s complicated. I think overall it’s a good thing,” Douglas told The Sun in a Tuesday night interview. “The complicated part is our rates are going up so fast I’m not sure this next step is actually going to turn the corner. But I am persuaded that it’s worth a try. This is a terribly difficult balancing act.”

Douglas’ comments hint at the lingering unease among public health leaders about Polis’ reluctance to issue a statewide stay-at-home order as Colorado enters what may be the toughest weeks yet of the pandemic.

Earlier this month, local public health directors sent Polis a letter urging him to issue lockdowns when and where necessary. As cases continued to rise and Polis continued to say he had no intention of imposing new lockdowns, Douglas and other metro-area health officials talked about coordinating on a regional stay-at-home order issued through local public health agencies, not the state, Douglas said.

John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health Department

“Each county needs to look at our rates and figure out when we need to act,” Douglas said earlier this week during a meeting of medical experts who advise Polis on pandemic response.

And on Tuesday, after Polis unveiled new restrictions that would eliminate in-person dining and further limit capacity at gyms in the hardest-hit counties, Douglas continued to say that a stay-at-home order is the most certain method of controlling the virus.

“Going to full stay-at-home would have a greater likelihood of reversing transmission, but it has more downside to it,” he said.

Polis has frequently cited the harm to mental health and the devastation to small businesses in the absence of new federal stimulus dollars in justifying not issuing another stay-at-home order. On Tuesday he characterized new stay-at-home orders as an absolute last resort.

“If what we’re doing now doesn’t work, that’s what counties would look at if they are actively overwhelming their hospitals,” Polis said.

Douglas said he would prefer to act on a stay-at-home order before hospitals are overwhelmed.

“I’d rather do it before somebody dies because we had to ration care,” Douglas said.

But he said he’s hopeful the new restrictions will have an impact. Tri-County Health Department covers Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. All three will move to the new red status level on Friday, which will prohibit or severely restrict most indoor activities. Indoor dining will not be allowed. Capacity at gyms will be reduced to only 10%.

Douglas said it’s not entirely clear that indoor activity at these places is driving spread of the virus.

“Our ability to do good determination of sources of cases is in the rearview mirror,” Douglas said. “We can’t come close to keeping up with all the cases, much less contacting the cases. Our public health capacity has been drowned by the surge in cases.”

But he cited a study published earlier this month that looked at transmission during the first months of the pandemic. The study argues that restaurants and gyms were major contributors to spread. And Douglas said that makes sense — diners at restaurants have to remove their masks in order to eat, while those exercising in gyms exhale forcefully, potentially spewing viral particles farther.

So, while it’s not certain the new restrictions will help constrain the virus, “it certainly is suggestive.” And Douglas said just the act of Polis standing up and imposing new restrictions also could have an impact in convincing people they need to take the latest case surge seriously.

“I’ve always felt that the strength of the message from the governor was the most important component we had in getting all of us to wake up and smell the coffee,” he said.

Douglas said he hopes promising news on coronavirus vaccines will inspire people to buckle down once more and get safely through the last remaining months before potentially pandemic-ending vaccination campaigns can ramp up. But he said he understands how hard this is on everybody.

“These are really painful times for all of us,” he said. “We sort of feel like we deserve a break. And instead of a break, we’re getting another black eye.”

John Ingold is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a reporter currently specializing in health care coverage. Born and raised in Colorado Springs, John spent 18 years working at The Denver Post. Prior to that, he held internships at the Rocky Ford Daily Gazette, the Colorado Springs...