Declaring that “we’re at a pivot point in this battle,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Monday announced that the city will allow its mask mandate for stores and businesses to expire Thursday.
The order will remain in place for schools and child care centers, though.
While not ruling out future restrictions if cases begin to rise anew, Hancock described the decision as part of a change in the city’s approach to fighting the coronavirus.
“This is still a public health emergency and will remain so as long as spikes, surges and variants threaten to overwhelm our hospitals and our health care systems,” Hancock said. “Denver, from this point forward, will be transitioning into a sustainable management of COVID as a programmatic function of our department of public health.”
At a meeting Monday evening, the Tri-County Health Department board voted to end its mask mandates for public indoor spaces. It went a step further than Denver and also ended its mask order for schools and child care centers. The department covers Adams and Arapahoe counties. The orders will officially end at the end of the day Friday.
Dr. John Douglas, the department’s executive director, told the board at the meeting that declines in COVID cases “are frankly more dramatic than anyone expected.”
In November, as the coronavirus’ delta variant swamped hospitals with seriously ill patients, Denver joined Jefferson, Boulder, Arapahoe and Adams counties in issuing mandates requiring masks to be worn in indoor public spaces. The rules contained a provision for businesses to allow customers to go maskless if they adopted a program where people would have to show proof of vaccination in order to enter.
The rules remained in place across the metro-area counties as the delta variant receded and the omicron variant took its place and caused record levels of COVID infections across the state. Recent modeling suggests that roughly two-thirds of the state will have been infected with omicron by the end of February.
Bob McDonald, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment, said the city’s decision to allow its mandate to expire was made in consultation with health officials in other counties. Jefferson County’s board of public health will meet Thursday to talk about its mask order.
COVID cases are dropping rapidly across the state, but they still remain quite common. A report released last week by the Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Group, a team of university researchers who try to forecast the pandemic’s trajectory, estimated that about 1 out of every 19 people in the state was infected as of Jan. 25, the date the report was issued.
“Community transmission remains high, presenting substantial risks to the unvaccinated and those at high-risk of severe COVID-19,” the modeling team wrote in the report.
When Denver issued the mask order in November, slightly more than 300 new COVID infections were being reported per day in the city. After peaking near 2,000, that number is now down to around 500, but it’s falling quickly.
McDonald said he and other health officials in Denver decided it was the right time to lift the mask mandate because the modeling team’s predictions show that lifting it now will have little impact on the downward trajectory of cases. He said the modeling also doesn’t show a large impact from the BA.2 subvariant of omicron, which has been detected in the state and could be even more contagious than omicron’s original form.
“What that says is that omicron has run out of fuel in our community,” McDonald said, adding later, “There is large protection through natural immunity and vaccines.”
McDonald said Denver is also in discussions about when to end its mask requirements for schools and child care centers, but he said state guidance makes that a more difficult conversation. Under the state’s guidance, unmasked and unvaccinated students who are exposed to someone with COVID in the classroom may have to quarantine.
“If we lift that mask mandate for school systems, it’s possible kids could be taken out of school,” McDonald said.