Mask mandate elicits support from Adams, Arapahoe counties, outrage and threats from Douglas

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AURORA | Commissioners for the two counties covering almost all of Aurora have quickly thrown their support behind a region-wide mask mandate public health experts ordered Wednesday. The third county is threatening to divorce itself from the group.

The mask mandate, a work still in progress, prompted the Douglas County board of commissioners to now focus on leaving the long-standing, three-county health department and create one of their own.

“My fellow commissioners and I have directed staff to leave (Tri-County Health) and develop a public health department to meet the needs of our residents,” Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said in a tweet Thursday. “We will also opt out of a mandatory mask order.”

Douglas County officials have pushed back against metro pandemic regulations from the onset of the pandemic crisis in March. Local state and county officials notoriously supported a restaurant in Castle Rock’s defiance of close orders on Mother’s Day, garnering national attention and swift sanctions from Tri-County Health and the state.

The Tri-County Health Department Board of Health narrowly voted Wednesday to require people to wear masks of some kind in public spaces throughout Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. But the order contained an “opt-out” exception for county commissioners and city leaders to decide the rules won’t apply inside their jurisdictions. 

That left more than 25 city governments and three counties, covering 1.4 million residents altogether, to decide whether the rules will apply to them. As of Thursday afternoon, that included the City of Aurora.

Counties can decide the mask mandate for unincorporated areas, but most cities, such as Aurora, are “home rule” and decide for their own municipality.

Adams County unequivocally supported the mandate in a statement Thursday. Commissioner Emma Pinter said in a press release the county covering much of north Aurora won’t pull out of the rule. 

Pinter, who chairs the Board of County Commissioners, said “It is important we all follow this mandatory face covering order to help meet our long-term goal of keeping our businesses open and our residents healthy and employed.” 

In supporting the mandate, Pinter echoed Dr. John Douglas, executive director of Tri-County Health, who is writing the mask mandate and hammering out specifics like how residents flouting the rules will be punished — if at all.  Douglas originally asked the Tri-County health board to only order mask-wearing in Adams County without any exceptions. 

Arapahoe County’s Board of County Commissioners also supports the mask mandate and doesn’t plan to opt out “at the moment,” spokesperson Luc Hatlestad said.

In a statement, the board acknowledged the scientific consensus that masks can reduce COVID-19 transmission and said about 80 percent of its residents already wear masks in public spaces.

However, some commissioners said they were “concerned with the enforceability, efficacy and constitutionality of this public health order.” Hatlestad said they’ll be monitoring the rule when Douglas rolls it out.

Commissioner Jeff Baker was concerned because Tri-County Health “decided this order without allowing public comments, and because they are unelected, appointed members with no term limits.”

It’s possible that Aurora officials will consider opting out of the rule. Mayor Mike Coffman said Wednesday on Twitter he supports the mandate but said city council members will be able to consider allowing maskless people to travel throughout public spaces. Aurora declined to impose a mask mandate in May. 

One expert told the Sentinel that government should require people to wear masks in the region. 

In the Wednesday meeting of the Tri-County Health board, Douglas pitched the mask mandate and cited data indicating that pandemic conditions in Adams County are currently worse than areas to the south. But generally, new cases are on the rise in all three counties. 

Douglas said Wednesday some of data is attributable to an uptick in testing. But statewide, the proportion of positive test results rose from 2.7% the week of June 7 to 3.48% last week, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Specifics of the mask mandate, such as enforcement, are still unclear.