Mayor Coffman, CU expert Chu push for Tri-County to mandate masks in Aurora region

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Signage at the entrance to the Waffle House on Mississippi Avenue display the mask requirement and maximum capacity of the restaurant. A shooting that took place in the area of the restaurant was a direct result of a customer not wanting to follow these policies. Mask mandate critics worry about more incidents whereas mandate supporters say they would be rare and the benefit for the community would be great in reducing COVID-19 transmission. Photo by Philip B. Poston/Sentinel Colorado

Editor’s Note: The Tri-County Board of Health mandated masks Wednesday for the entire region, but counties and municipalities can opt out of the rules. Follow this link to read the Sentinel’s coverage of the order and the meeting. 

AURORA | Although public health officials are mum about a special meeting Wednesday that could impose a mask-wearing mandate on the Aurora region, Mayor Mike Coffman and experts want rules requiring residents to wear masks inside public spaces that won’t be enforced by police. 

The board of the Tri-County Health Department is scheduled to hold a special meeting Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. to consider requiring residents in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties to wear masks in public. The move comes months after Aurora declined to require masks, breaking from Denver and some area municipalities who said the mandates were necessary to help cull the spread of COVID-19. 

Tri-County Health spokesperson Gary Sky said the board will ponder a range of mask-mandate scenarios, but he did not offer more details about the proposals. 

That might mean Aurorans will have to wear a face covering in all public areas, or simply when in line or inside public spaces and places of business. That’s been the case in Denver since early May. 

The Tri-County decision is a politically charged one coming during a concerning uptick in novel coronavirus cases. 

In the Tri-County Health jurisdiction, which covers all of Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas Counties, cases surpassed 10,000 earlier this week. The region is home to 1.4 million people. The number of cases reported per day rose by nearly 30 percent in Arapahoe and Adams Counties, and doubled in Douglas County, between the second and fourth weeks of June.

The rate of positive cases has increased from 2.7% the week of June 7 to 3.48% last week, The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said.

Health department data indicate that after two consecutive weeks of increases, the state recorded 1,734 new confirmed cases between June 29 and July 5, a slight decrease from the 1,748 cases reported the previous week.

Speaking with the Sentinel, Coffman threw his support behind a mask mandate limited to indoor public spaces, such as grocery stores and churches. He also prefers keeping the Aurora Police Department out of enforcing the possible rule in favor of city code enforcement staff. 

In neighboring Denver, residents unwilling to wear a mask inside public spaces are at risk of earning an up to $999 fine. Denver police are charged with enforcing the mandate.

Coffman said his call for a mandate is born out of necessity. 

“We are at a crossroads right now,” he said. “The trendline is no longer going down on COVID cases.”

Coffman echoed consensus public health guidance that wearing a well-fitting cloth mask can protect people from unwittingly spreading or contracting the virus. 

The guidance was in part developed by Dr. May Chu, a clinical professor of epidemiology at the CU Denver Colorado School of Public Health on the Anschutz medical campus. Chu helped develop the World Health Organization protocols on wearing masks and has been studying the efficacy of homemade face coverings.

Chu said the evidence is clear: Homemade masks can contain particulates in breath or saliva possibly containing the novel coronavirus. 

She also supports a mask mandate of some kind in the Tri-County region. But she thinks that a relatively small portion of the population will resist wearing masks, especially if Tri-County requires it, for cultural or political reasons. 

“We are not a mask-wearing culture,” she said of the U.S. “Wearing masks in the U.S. carries a negative connotation — like robbing stagecoaches in the movies. It’s just not an acceptable social norm.”

JoAnn Windholz, who chairs the Adams County Republican Party, is opposed to the possible Tri-County-imposed mask rules. But she emphasized that masks are helpful and that she wanted people to stay safe. 

“Mandating is wrong. I’m sorry, we’re a free people,” she said. “If people want to wear them, they will wear one.”  

Chu thinks that, instead of issuing a citation to folks who flout the rules, local government should engage with people who won’t wear masks and stress responsibility. She recommended having Tri-County Health contact tracers reach out to disaffected residents to discuss why they won’t wear a mask and find other strategies for them. 

She said it’s necessary to find working strategies, not just limited to masks. It’s likely Aurora will be living with the pandemic for another two or three years, even with a vaccine or medicines. 

“We are trying to get the chaos we have now under some control,” she said. 

Coffman also called for a regional mask mandate to obliterate what he called the “patchwork” set of rules in the region. Beyond counties in Aurora and Denver, Boulder and Broomfield counties have imposed mask mandates, he said.