Denver will join most of the metro area in once again requiring masks be worn in indoor public places starting Wednesday, though businesses can be exempted if they demonstrate they’re requiring employees and customers to show proof they’re vaccinated against COVID-19.
Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties also will be under nearly identical mandates, which require masks be worn in places like stores, gyms and entertainment venues. The counties acted in concert to help reduce the current surge’s strain on the health care system, officials said.
“We are issuing what I like to call a ‘vax or mask’ mandate,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at a news conference with four health department heads and an executive from Denver Health. “Either your venue or business is requiring proof of vaccination or you choose to be a place where only masks are required.”
To apply for a mask exemption, businesses would have to submit plans to their local health departments explaining how they would verify that at least 95% of people in their buildings at any time are vaccinated. They also could opt for more-limited exemptions — say, that only vaccinated people may attend an intense exercise class, so they can go without masks.
The mask mandates in Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties apply to people 2 and older, while Jefferson County’s starts at age 3. The counties differ slightly in their plans for removing the mandates, though all said the decision ultimately will depend on hospital capacity. Denver’s new mask order will remain in place until at least Jan. 2.
Robin Wittenstein, CEO of Denver Health, appealed to the public to follow the mask order and take other precautions to ease the building pressure on health care workers. About 95% of the hospital’s intensive-care and general beds are full, she said.
“We need your help,” she said. “We are at a point of breaking.”
As of Tuesday afternoon,1,576 people were hospitalized in Colorado with confirmed COVID-19 statewide. While there are some positive signs that new cases may be starting to decrease, hospitals remain under strain, with only 557 general beds and 71 intensive-care beds available.
Most of the metro health departments (other than Douglas County’s new Board of Health) had sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis asking for a statewide mask mandate. Douglas County left its local public health agency, the Tri-County Health Department, to avoid requiring masks in schools — though it ultimately allowed the Douglas County School District to set its own mandate after a lawsuit.
Boulder, Pitkin and Larimer counties already have mask mandates in place. Generally, the metro-area counties try to synch up their public health orders.
Denver had a mask mandate for about a year and lifted it in mid-May, when the statewide mandate ended. At the time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said vaccinated people no longer needed to wear masks in public, though the unvaccinated should. The upshot was that both unvaccinated and vaccinated people largely took off their masks.
Dawn Comstock, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, said that in the absence of statewide measures, counties have to work together to slow the virus’ spread.
“County borders don’t contain this virus,” she said.
At a separate news conference Tuesday, Polis said the state’s role is to increase hospital capacity, to encourage booster shots and to make it easier for high-risk people who have COVID-19 to get monoclonal antibodies, which reduce the risk they’ll become sick enough to be hospitalized.
Several mass vaccination sites, including Ball Arena, are expanding their capacity, and the state has set a goal of helping find staff to open 500 hospital and “step-down” beds by mid-December, he said.
Each county has to make decisions based on local conditions and what the public will tolerate — which can vary widely, given that some people would say “let them die” of the unvaccinated, and others want to do everything possible to protect them, Polis said. He asked people not to denigrate local officials who may favor more, or fewer, restrictions than they would prefer.
“We’re proud of all the steps the local health departments are taking that are consistent with their values,” he said.
The local orders exempt people who are actively eating or drinking at restaurants; who have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks; who rely on lip-reading for communication; who are performers in a show or leaders of a religious service, if they’re 12 feet from others; or who are participating in individual sports, like gymnastics, if they’re 25 feet from others.
Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, said Monday during a presentation to the Jefferson County Board of Health that the city had decided to mandate vaccines for its employees, in hopes that would be a more successful strategy than requiring masks or proof of vaccination in certain public places. Those measures help, but getting as many people as possible vaccinated is the key, he said.
“We are here today because too many people chose not to get vaccinated even though they are eligible,” he said at the joint press conference Tuesday.
Lexi Nolen, deputy director of Boulder County Public Health, said Monday that mask mandates were one of the less-restrictive ways to meet the goals of preventing unnecessary deaths, keeping hospitals from being overrun and allowing life to go on as normally as possible. If most of the state does nothing now, lockdowns might be the only tool left to get the situation under control, as Europe has found, she said.
When all neighboring counties have similar mask rules in place, that reduces concerns that people will simply drive a bit further to go a gym or store that doesn’t require them to mask up, Nolen said.
“Most of our businesses’ frustrations relate to not having a level playing field with other counties,” she said.
Comstock said Monday that the latest information from the state’s modeling team showed that in roughly half of simulations from the current track, the state will have more than 2,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations in the coming weeks and could run out of beds.
Increasing the pace of booster doses and first shots for children lowers the odds to about 46%; small increases in transmission control, such as increasing mask-wearing, drops it to 30%; and getting monoclonal antibody treatment to half of eligible people lowers it further, to 25%.
“If we put all these together, we have the best opportunity to avoid overwhelming our hospitals,” she said.
Vaccinations provide the highest level of protection, but don’t work overnight. The Johnson & Johnson shot provides its highest level of protection after two weeks, but most people have opted for two-shot sequences, which are somewhat more effective. Depending on which of the two-shot vaccines a person chooses, it takes five or six weeks to reach full protection.
While monoclonal antibodies are likely more effective than masks at preventing hospitalizations, the state can’t scale them up fast enough to stop hospitals from being overrun, said Dr. John Douglas, executive director of the Tri-County Health Department. Boosters also will help, but don’t stop transmission immediately, he said.
“That’s not going to be enough, it appears, to stave off the crisis,” he said.