mask mandates Colorado

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

Face coverings must be worn in all public, indoor spaces in Larimer County beginning Oct. 20, the county announced Friday afternoon, as the area struggles with overloaded hospitals and high case rates.

The order is effective for anyone over the age of 2, the county's Department of Public Health and Environment said in a Friday afternoon press release. It will remain in place until COVID-19's spread in the county, and the hospitalizations it's causing, falls to far lower levels for 21 consecutive days.

As of Friday afternoon, county hospitals' intensive care capacity continues to be overwhelmed, mirroring a statewide trend of unprecedented ICU demand. The county's positivity rate there is also higher than Colorado's, itself elevated to its highest levels in months. 

"Larimer County hospitals are being overburdened, and we cannot allow this to continue indefinitely," Tom Gonzales, the county's public health director, said in the press release. "Our hospitals need relief so they can swiftly and adequately treat all urgent medical needs in our community. Vaccination is the best way out of this pandemic, but 35% of Larimer County’s population remains unvaccinated against COVID-19. Universal mask-wearing is the next best prevention tool we have to reduce the strain on our hospitals.”

Facilities in the county who institute "mandatory vaccination policies for staff, patrons and guests" can then apply to become exempt from the order. 

The mask mandate will end only when four thresholds have been crossed:

  • There are fewer than 65 patients in the county's hospitals; there are currently 91;
  • ICU use is below 90% of "usual and customary levels"; that figure is currently at 105%;
  • the seven-day, per-100,000 case rate falls below 300; it's currently at 274; and
  • the county's seven-day average positivity rate falls below 10%; it's currently at 8.4%.

The surge facing the county's hospitals are a mix of COVID-19 and other seasonal respiratory illnesses, hospital officials said in the county's announcement.

"Last year when we all masked and practiced social distancing, there were far fewer flu and RSV cases, which lessened the burden on hospitals and allowed us to get a handle on the pandemic," Margo Karsten, the president of Banner Health Western Region, said. "To put us back in a good position to provide the care everyone needs, we support steps to have community members adopt good health practices and reduce the spread of these respiratory illnesses."

Health officials in Colorado and nationwide have long said that COVID-19 alone is unlikely to overwhelm hospitals. But its mixture with other, more typical medical emergencies - including flu, which contributes to thousands of hospitalizations in Colorado each year - is dangerous. 

RSV, a common respiratory illness that, like flu, spikes in the winter and affects children in particular, has surged early this year. It's unprecedented presence has stressed, but not overwhelmed, Children's Hospital Colorado and other pediatric facilities.

With the loss of universal masking and the return of all students to physical classrooms, health officials have warned of the risk of multiple respiratory surges at once. Statewide, Colorado's hospitals have more COVID-19 patients now than at any other point this year, and ICU beds - though not filled entirely with COVID-19 cases - are at their highest capacity levels of the pandemic.

Asked if he would institute any new public health measures, Gov. Jared Polis earlier this week continued to advocate for vaccinations and for Coloradans to undertake independent behavioral changes, like masking and social distancing. He has not instituted any new health orders to curb COVID-19's spread since the spring, when the pandemic appeared to be slowing and state officials were hoping for some return to normalcy.