Gov. Jared Polis on Friday finalized his decision to ease the state’s mask mandate starting on Saturday, allowing people in about half of the state’s 64 counties, but only representing a fraction of Colorado’s population, to ditch their face coverings in the vast majority of public indoor places.
A new executive order requires people who live in counties that are under level-green restrictions on Colorado’s coronavirus dial to wear masks only in K-12 schools, child care centers, indoor children’s camps, public-facing state government facilities, congregate care facilities, and prisons and jails. Masks will also still be required in health care settings — including hospitals, urgent-care centers and doctors’ offices — as well as at personal-services businesses, like hair and nail salons.
People who live in counties that are in levels blue, yellow, orange, red or purple will have to wear masks only when they are gathering with 10 or more unrelated, unvaccinated people in indoor public settings. They must also wear masks in all of the places that people who live in level-green counties are still required to wear face coverings, regardless of how many people are present.
The mask-wearing requirements only apply to people who are age 11 and older.
There were 31 counties in level-green status as of Friday, including all of the counties in the San Luis Valley and most on the Eastern Plains. Several counties in the southwest and northwest corners are also in level green.
The level-green counties are home to about 238,000 Coloradans. More than 5.5. million people live in the rest of Colorado’s counties.
Counties and cities where the statewide mask order is being eased can still impose local mask orders themselves. Businesses can also require customers to wear masks. Businesses can also require customers to wear masks.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, for instance, says the city’s mask mandate will remain in effect until at least early May, no matter what the state does.
Despite the new order, the state is still encouraging people to voluntarily wear masks in any setting where they are interacting with people outside of their own household.
“I look forward to the day when immunity reaches a level that we no longer have to wear masks,” Polis said in a written statement on Friday. “Right now across our state, 1 in 207 people are currently contagious with COVID-19, and only an estimated 27% of Coloradans are already immune through either vaccination or prior infection. In the meantime, we must continue practicing vigilance by wearing masks, especially if you aren’t yet fully vaccinated, practicing social distancing when in public and in the company of people with unknown vaccine status. This modified mask order is a step towards the light at the end of the tunnel.”
The changes to the mask mandate, the first since the requirement was enacted by Polis in July, come as coronavirus vaccinations were opened on Friday to all people age 16 and older. Just over 1 million Coloradans had been fully vaccinated as of Friday.
Polis is easing the statewide mask mandate even as President Joe Biden and the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have begged states not to roll back face-covering requirements and other COVID-19 restrictions. Coronavirus cases are surging again across the U.S., and Dr. Rochelle Walensky, who leads the CDC, said this week that she was “scared” by the current trend.
Biden has been critical of states — like Texas, Mississippi, Florida and Arkansas — that are rolling back COVID-19 restrictions, saying their leaders are showing “Neanderthal thinking.” Most of the states that have fully dropped their mask mandates are led by Republican governors. Polis is a Democrat.
“I think it’s a big mistake. I hope everyone has realized right now these masks make a difference,” Biden said last month of states rolling back restrictions. “We are on the cusp of being able to fundamentally change the nature of this disease because of the way in which we are able to get vaccines in people’s arms.”
Polis, when asked if Biden specifically asked Colorado not to ease its mask mandate, said “I don’t think that they’ve asked us not to do anything.”
The governor pointed out that the statewide mask mandate will be in effect for at least another month. “It takes a slightly different form in different parts of the state,” Polis said in an interview with The Colorado Sun on Friday morning. “Our entire state will have mask-wearing requirements in certain settings.”
The updated mask mandate will be in effect until May 2, at which point “we will reevaluate,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, who leads the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
In response to Polis’ mask-mandate change, the health department overseeing La Plata and Archuleta counties on Friday announced it would be enacting its own mask mandate requiring people to wear face coverings in all public indoor settings unless everyone is vaccinated.
Polis also is planning to do away with the state’s dial system on April 16. That’s “assuming we don’t see a dramatic increase in cases,” Hunsaker Ryan said.
Counties will be allowed to continue using the dial or enact their own public-health orders on April 16, though there still will be public health restrictions imposed by the state for indoor settings where large numbers of people gather.
“We’re not quite ready to mix a lot of people together in an indoor setting,” Hunsaker Ryan said.
A “snap-back” provision would force counties back into the dial system if their cases increase dramatically and if their hospitals are at danger of reaching capacity.
Public health officials warn that Colorado remains in a dangerous place in the pandemic, with too few people vaccinated to guarantee the state will not see another big spike in infections if people lower their guard.
After a dramatic decline to start the year, Colorado’s case trends have leveled off, with about 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 identified each day. That number is higher than at any other point in the pandemic except for the peaks of late-fall and early-winter. Dr. Jonathan Samet, the dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, called it “the worrisome plateau” in an online commentary this week.
In an interview with The Sun last week, Samet said Colorado can not afford to let up now.
“It’s not time to declare victory and say we’re back to 2019,” Samet said. “I think that’s critical.”
Samet said mask-wearing, hand-washing and other social distancing measures remain important. But he also said, at this point, it’s not clear how many people are taking these precautions purely because of a government requirement to do them — meaning it’s unclear how much impact dropping the mandates will have on people’s behavior.
“Some of those measures may stay with us awhile,” Samet said. “Maybe not by mandate, but because people want to protect themselves and their families.”
Infections are rising in some parts of Colorado.
Samet leads a team that creates mathematical models to predict the course of the pandemic in the state. The latest version of one model shows infections currently increasing in three regions: the Northeast region, including Larimer, Logan, Morgan, Phillips, Sedgwick, Washington, Weld and Yuma counties; the East Central region, including Cheyenne, Elbert, Kit Carson and Lincoln counties; and the Central region, including Chaffee, El Paso, Lake, Park and Teller counties.
In the East Central region one in every 44 people is currently estimated to be infected, according to the model.
But rates of new infection may no longer be a reliable measurement of how well Colorado is doing against the virus. Polis has said that around 70% of Coloradans 60 and older have been vaccinated. That population makes up nearly 90% of the state’s COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.
Deaths among people infected with COVID-19 have continued to fall, even as infection rates have leveled out. The number of people dying each week with COVID-19 — around 20 to 25 people — is similar to rates seen during the summer. And people 60 and older are making up a smaller proportion of the deaths — about 64% in figures from early March.
In nursing homes, which have accounted for about a quarter of the state’s coronavirus deaths, infections have dropped dramatically after vaccinations. At the peak of Colorado’s December spike, the state’s nursing homes reported more than 700 cases and more than 100 deaths among residents per week, according to data collected by the federal government.
In preliminary figures through the third week of March, nursing homes reported 18 cases and three deaths so far.
Still, Samet said, there are a lot of people in their 40s and 50s waiting to be vaccinated. And, even if a coronavirus infection is not fatal, it can still cause long-term damage.
“So we still have a group at risk for more severe illness and hospitalization,” he said.
Despite that, Samet said it is unlikely Colorado would run the risk of overwhelming hospital capacity if cases did surge again, since so many vulnerable Coloradans have been vaccinated and the inoculations appear to be doing a good job of preventing severe illness from all variants of the coronavirus.
“I think, realistically, we are beyond those scenarios,” Samet said.