Colorado Gov. Polis issues statewide mask order, hoping for 'wake-up call’

'The virus doesn’t care what political party you’re in'

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Faced with a potential exponential growth curve of COVID-19 cases that threatens to overrun Colorado’s intensive care capacity by early September, Gov. Jared Polis has issued a statewide mask-wearing order after repeated hesitation to take that step.

“We’re really on the knife’s edge,” Polis said Thursday at a news conference, referencing the dire spikes in the coronavirus’ spread outside of Colorado.

“Many nearby states have shown us what will happen. It’s not what may happen — it’s what will happen if we don’t regain our footing and take social distancing and masks seriously."

He added: “I’m hoping that (for) the people of Colorado ... this is a wake-up call for those who might have become a little bit lax. We need to take this very seriously. Our lives depend on it, and our economy depends on it.”

Polis, who has cited research that shows masks are more effective than previously thought in stemming the spread of COVID-19, compared the state’s order on wearing masks in public to generally accepted traffic laws.

“If you drive a car, you wear a seatbelt, you obey the speed limit, you drive sober,” Polis said. “It doesn’t matter whether you agree politically with speed limits or with drunk driving laws, but we follow the law.”

The governor announced he would sign an executive order that goes into effect Friday requiring that Coloradans older than 10 wear a face covering in public indoor spaces. That doesn’t include when a person is eating or working out on their own, but it applies in stores, at work and where people congregate, Polis said.

That includes wearing a mask while using or waiting on a taxi, bus, light rail, train, car service, or ride-sharing or similar service, according to the order's text.

Unlike a recent order issued by the Tri-County Health Department, the local public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, the statewide order will not allow local governments to opt out of the requirement — other than when counties qualify for the state's “protect our neighbors” phase of social distancing policy, which requires the virus' spread to be under control in ways that are unlikely to be seen in the Denver metro area in the near future.

On Tuesday, Jefferson County Public Health issued an emergency mask-wearing order.

Polis addressed the political nature of mask-wearing, a dividing line in American society that has showed in debates over mask orders in areas including the south Denver metro region in July.

“Wearing a mask is not a political statement. I don’t know how in anybody’s mind it’s become a game of political football,” Polis said.

“It’s simple, it’s common sense and it’s data. The virus doesn’t care what political party you’re in, the virus doesn’t care what belief system you have, the virus doesn’t care what your ideology is. The virus is the virus, and it is a threat to every single one of us.”

Mike Coffman, the Republican mayor of Aurora, one of Colorado’s largest cities, spoke alongside the governor in support of the mandate, saying he believes it is “the best and least invasive public health option that is available to us.”

“I know there’s going to be some grumbling about this. I get it. It’s a mandate from government,” said Coffman, a former congressman.

But he added: “If people think wearing a mask is a hardship, they need to think about the others in our society that have been suffering and will suffer more if we have to reenact” restrictions on Coloradans’ lives that applied earlier in the pandemic.

The statewide mask rule will expire 30 days from July 16 unless extended by another executive order.

Governor reverses course

Polis’ reversal on a mask rule comes on the heels of data that show hospitalizations due to COVID-19 could increase on a steep curve similar to the trend seen earlier in the pandemic.

Colorado’s trajectory for hospitalizations during the stay-at-home order and shortly after it would have put the state on a decreasing trend, and more recently, hospitalizations were on track to stay almost flat, said Rachel Herlihy, state epidemiologist, who spoke at the news conference.

But in light of the state’s behavior most recently, a steep upward curve is projected that could exceed Colorado’s capacity of intensive-care beds in September, with a peak in ICU need occurring sometime in October, Herlihy said.

Two days earlier, Polis continued to strongly recommend masks but stopped short of issuing an order. He was concerned with whether a rule would increase mask-wearing.

“It turns out that having this kind of (law) in place does increase mask wearing fairly substantially,” Polis said. He cited a survey by an “outside group" that showed 67% of people wore masks in counties with no mask requirement, and in places with a rule, mask wearing stood at about 83%. A survey by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment showed 49% mask-wearing in places without a rule and 57% with a rule, Polis said.

It appears mask requirements do not make people less likely to follow social distancing, Polis added.

Earlier in the month, the governor was still betting on persuasion instead of an order, hoping to try “every method of communication” to try to convince Coloradans to wear masks, he said.

“If you're somehow waiting to wear a mask until the governor tells you to, I hope you've heard that I'm telling you to. And if I haven't been clear, I'm telling you to wear a mask: Wear a damn mask,” Polis said at a July 9 news conference.

In the days before the statewide order, more than half the state's population had a mask-wearing requirement in their local jurisdiction. That includes many municipalities and counties in the Denver metro area.

“Coloradans value their bodily autonomy and their liberty, but the reason this issue is more complex is it's not so much about just your rights — it's also about protecting the right to live of those who are impacted by your decisions,” Polis said.

The way to avoid the need for another stay-at-home order is mask-wearing and limiting socializing, Polis said.

State officials have acknowledged several times that the state could see stay-at-home orders again if the pandemic becomes dire enough in Colorado. Coronavirus cases in the state have seen an upswing for roughly the past month.

Order spotlights businesses

Coffman took issue with Tri-County Health's mask-wearing order for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas because it allowed counties and municipalities to opt out.

“A majority of the workforce leaves Aurora in the morning and comes back in the late afternoon. And so, the notion that we could have this patchwork and have it be effective is just not possible,” Coffman said.

In the past, including at a July 14 news conference, Polis had argued a statewide mask order would be difficult for the state to enforce and that efforts with local enforcement capabilities are more effective.

What helped change his mind is the research that showed “the mere existence” of local requirements correlated to about 15% more mask-wearing, despite that they’re seldom enforced, Polis said.

Under the state’s order, a person without a mask who refuses to leave a business would be trespassing — similar to if a person enters a store without proper clothing — and local law officers can enforce that, Polis said.

Businesses serving the public may not provide service to a customer or allow a customer onto its public indoor space unless the customer is wearing a face covering, according to the governor’s office news release. Businesses will be required to uphold the requirement if they don’t want their licenses to be affected, Polis said.

On the other hand, the order will give business owners firmer ground to stand on in requiring people to wear masks, Polis argued.

“I’ve heard from many business owners who are frustrated that they haven’t had the moral authority” to ask people to wear masks, Polis said, adding: “This will help small business owners to make sure their customers are safe and that their employees are safe.”

Pumping brakes on reopening

The state will slow the pace of Colorado’s lifting of restrictions with a two-week pause on issuing counties any new exceptions, or “variances,” to Colorado’s current limits on gatherings and activities under its safer-at-home order, according to Polis’ presentation.

Counties that already have variances but are seeing concerning COVID-19 levels must take “bold and urgent” steps to suppress the spread, or they risk losing the variances, according to the presentation.

The state is still moving forward with its third phase of social distancing policy, the “protect our neighbors” phase, Polis said. The first two phases were the stay-at-home and current safer-at-home orders.

Once counties meet certain criteria, submit a plan to mitigate surges and are approved by the state, they can permit activities at 50% of pre-pandemic capacity “across all sectors,” with at least 6 feet between non-household members and no more than 500 people in one setting, according to the state's framework.

The state on July 7 released a form to allow counties to apply to qualify for that new phase of social distancing.

Counties that qualify for the “protect our neighbors” phase may choose to become exempt from the mask order, according to the executive order's text.

While less-metropolitan areas may be able to qualify, "that is very unlikely to be the case for the Denver metro area in the near future," Polis said.

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