mask mandates Colorado

Visitors comply with the face mask mandate due to the coronavirus as they enter the Denver Zoo on Nov. 5, 2020. 

Most Denver residents will be required to wear masks in public indoor settings beginning Wednesday, city leaders announced Tuesday morning, less than a day after three other counties in the metro area instituted a similar requirement and as hospitals in the region are on the "brink of collapse."

"We are truly at a point where we cannot continue to do what we're doing without help from the people in the metro region," Robin Wittenstein, the CEO of Denver Health, told reporters at a news conference.

The order requires everyone 2 years of age and older be masked in public indoor settings through Jan. 3. To be exempt from the masking requirements, businesses can institute a program to check vaccine status at the door. At least 95% of people in those venues at any time, including staff, must be vaccinated, said Bob McDonald, the chief executive of Denver's Department of Public Health and Environment.

Denver joins Jefferson, Adams and Arapahoe as metro counties with what Hancock called a "'vax or mask' mandate"; the other three counties all approved their orders Monday night. Officials have indicated Broomfield County is also considering its own measures.

Health agencies in the metro have sought to move uniformly since the beginning of the pandemic, to ensure complete uptake across the region; earlier this month, nearly all of them asked Gov. Jared Polis to require masks and vaccine checks. 

Mayor Michael Hancock praised Denver's high vaccination rate — with an 80.4% uptake rate across eligible groups — and said that "if other communities had done what Denver had done, the pandemic would be under control." 

The metro is "stepping up to do our part," McDonald added. He laid the blame for the current crisis on the choices of the unvaccinated.

"This is not a failure of Denver, it's not a failure of the public health system," he said. "We are here today because too many people chose not to get vaccinated, even though they are eligible. We've been saying this for 11 months now, since vaccines were rolled out: They're safe, effective, and the only way out of this pandemic is to get vaccinated."

He was clear that masking and vaccine passports are tools in the short-term to blunt the virus' spread. But overall vaccination and booster uptake, McDonald continued, are the long-term paths forward. 

Bill Burman, director of the Denver Health Institute of Public Health, said the region should feel the impact of the mask mandate "within just a few weeks." He and others did not answer when asked what the region would do if the mask order was not enough to lessen the load on hospitals.

Data presented Monday night to the Jefferson County Board of Health indicated local hospitalizations had gone down in Boulder and Larimer counties after mask orders were enacted there, while local patients from Weld County — which has no such mandate — remain among the highest in the state. John Douglas, the head of the Tri-County Health Department, said Tuesday morning that Larimer County documented a 30% reduction in resident COVID-19 hospitalizations after implementing its order.

Masks haven't been required in Denver since the spring, when vaccinations were flowing steadily, cases were largely trending downward, and there was optimism that the pandemic was subsiding. But the emergence of the delta variant, coupled with other pressures facing hospitals, has led to a steady spiraling of the pandemic situation in Colorado over the past two months. City health leaders had asked Polis earlier this month to institute a requirement statewide, warning that a patchwork system would be insufficient. The governor has thus far shown no interest in doing so.

Hancock said he worked closely with Polis and the state Department of Public Health and Environment. He said he would've preferred a mask order been put in place two to three weeks ago, but he didn't criticize the governor's decision to eschew a core tenet of his initial pandemic response.

Shortly after Denver's order was announced Tuesday, Polis said he supported local public health agencies' decisions — both to implement and avoid orders — and reiterated that the state would not be instituting any measures from the top-down.

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Enforcement of the order is going to begin with educating business owners, McDonald said. Health officials have performed "over 20,000 visits" at businesses since the pandemic began to "provide guidance and facilitate compliance." While some businesses in Denver and the metro already require masks or vaccine checks, he said, the order is an order and is enforceable.

"What makes a difference between now and the beginning of January is that everyone will now need to do that," he said.

COVID-19 is surging at levels unseen in a year, and the move back toward masks, which will now be in place in Denver, Adams, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, is aimed at alleviating a piece of the overall hospital capacity crisis. The crush is a mixture of COVID-19 patients, staffing shortages and an influx of more standard medical emergencies. Hospitals in the metro were diverting patients in October far more frequently than at any previous point in the pandemic, and as of Tuesday morning, both intensive and acute care bed capacity had averaged 94% occupancy over the past seven days.

Wittenstein, of Denver Health, said the hospital system was running 5% over capacity for ICU and medical-surgical beds. She said the state is "perilously close" to rationing care, a worst-case scenario that has yet to be enacted but is being studied and drafted by state health experts.

The mask orders have been couched, in Denver and elsewhere, as a way to both help hospitals and keep businesses open. Lexi Nolen, the deputy director of Boulder County Public Health, said her county's order was intended to avoid lockdown measures, among other, more restrictive mitigation strategies. 

On Monday evening, the boards of health representing Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties all voted to institute indoor mask orders for everyone but very young children. Both orders also give businesses the ability to establish a vaccine passport system and allow fully inoculated patrons to go maskless.  

Health officials have said time is running out. Dawn Comstock, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, said residents were dying each day; Jefferson County has averaged one COVID-19 death per day since mid-July. Lane Drager, who sits on the Jefferson County board, said he was concerned the mask order was already coming too late.

McDonald said Friday that it had become clear Polis wouldn't step in and that metro agencies were going to move forward before Thanksgiving. Public health officials across the state have voiced concern that the imminent holiday season, coupled with the typical rise in flu infections that winter brings, may further exacerbate the COVID-19 and hospitalization crisis.