AURORA | Denver is joining Aurora and nearby counties today in imposing a mask mandate in public places, a coordinated move that officials said Tuesday was needed to prevent the region’s hospital system from collapsing amid a surge in cases.
Starting Wednesday, everyone age 2 and over will have to wear a mask in indoor public places in Aurora, Denver and most of the surrounding region. However, echoing the approach taken by surrounding counties, businesses that can show that at least 95% of its customers and staffers are fully vaccinated will not have to require people to wear masks, Mayor Michael Hancock said.
The mask mandate in Aurora, imposed by the Tri-County Health Department, which overlays Aurora and all of Adams and Arapahoe counties, could be in jeopardy after some Republican members of the city council asked the city manager to refuse the order.
A group of sitting and newly-elected Republican Aurora City Council members on Tuesday requested the city disregard a new mask mandate for Adams and Arapahoe counties because it doesn’t cover a sliver of residents in Douglas County, which has no public establishments.
The council members all signed a letter, saying it would cause inequity about where in Aurora the mask mandate would be required and where it wouldn’t. There are, however, no commercial businesses in the Douglas County portion of Aurora, according to city data.
The letter said the Tri-County measure “has placed the City of Aurora in a situation where the new mandate will not evenly apply to all our city’s residents.”
The mandate, however, only applies to public indoor places, such as restaurants, retail stores, gyms and other public places, according to language in the measure, and there aren’t any in the Aurora portion of Douglas County. Any of those residents shopping, dining or visiting public indoor places in Arapahoe or Adams counties would be required to wear a mask.
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, speaking during an update to statewide media Tuesday afternoon, questioned the move by Aurora lawmakers to back away from a mask mandate.
“I wouldn’t be looking at ZIP codes or geographical lines,” in creating mask mandate policy, Polis said.
The Aurora lawmakers said that a statewide mandate would avoid confusion, a move that Polis has steadfastly refused to back.
“We believe that in order to maintain a consistent enforcement policy across our city, in all three counties, with differing mask requirements, that Aurora should continue to follow guidelines set forth by the State of Colorado as it relates to the issue of mask mandates,” the group wrote in the letter to city management.
With no public businesses or facilities in Aurora in Douglas County, the measure would not be applicable to anything there.
Council member-elects Steve Sundberg, Dustin Zvonek and Danielle Jurinsky joined council members Francoise Bergan, Curtis Gardner and Mayor Mike Coffman in signing the letter, which was posted on social media Tuesday.
The Aurora City Council has not talked publicly about the mandate in recent meetings and there was no agenda item for discussion.
About 0.6% of the population of Aurora lives in Douglas County and will be under that county’s new health department’s jurisdiction. The split was something Aurora city lawmakers tried to avoid. Coffman introduced a resolution this summer asking county officials to remain in Tri-County Health.
“I really want to keep it together and it’s the best interest of the city and the tax payers in the entire region,” he told the Sentinel after introducing the measure. Only council member Marsha Berzins voted “no” on that resolution.
“I understand that some of the decisions were controversial, but they also helped to navigate us through a very difficult time where I felt they were making the best decisions with the information they had,” he said.
City spokesperson Michael Brannen said in a statement Wednesday that Aurora city management hasn’t officially received the mask mandate order from Tri-County Health. “Once the city has received the order, we will review it with our legal department, and determine our role with the order.”
Aurora has not instituted its own mask mandate at any time throughout the pandemic. Monday evening city council members returned to the Aurora Municipal Center for the first time in 20 months, though at a limited capacity. Masks were optional.
Polis said at a news conference Tuesday that he is not considering a state-wide mask mandate but that he supports the decisions of local health departments and county governments that have issued mandates and “have to function within the social license of the area that they represent.”
Polis added that he would worry about the state’s COVID-19 trends if the vaccination rate was 20 or 30 points lower. In Colorado, 81% of adults and 92% of those 65 and up are fully vaccinated, he said.
Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment, echoed comments from Polis and area health officials, blaming the unvaccinated for the move, pointing out that 83% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 have not gotten vaccinated.
“Hospitals are filling up by those of you have chosen not to get vaccinated,” he said.
Capacity is so limited at the city’s public hospital, Denver Health, that its emergency room has been routinely diverting patients to other hospitals, CEO Robin Wittenstein said. Between treating more COVID-19 patients and people who delayed care during the height of the pandemic, hospital workers are exhausted and need help from the public.
“Our system is on the brink of collapse,” she said.
Citing hospital capacity concerns earlier this month, Denver area public health directors had urged Polis to issue a statewide order requiring people to have vaccine passports to enter places such as bars, restaurants, gyms and sporting events and require masks for the unvaccinated in public indoor settings.
While the state did not do so, the state health department issued an order requiring that people show proof of vaccination to attend indoor, unseated public events with more than 500 people in the Denver area.
Under an order issued Sunday by the state health department, venues that already require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from patrons can continue accepting proof of a negative test through Dec. 1. After that, anyone wanting to attend events will have to show proof they are fully vaccinated through Dec. 31. The order only affects venues where patrons aren’t “seated.”
The Democratic governor said the state “to a certain extent” needs “to be ready to handle the unvaccinated filling our hospitals,” adding that it’s still their responsibility if they don’t take the extra precautions like getting vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect themselves.
“When it becomes a collective responsibility is when our hospitals are at capacity and other people aren’t able to get the surgeries or procedures that they need,” Polis said.