No action on Aurora face mask policy draws questions about science, public safety

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AURORA | After a stay-at-home health department order expired for Adams and Arapahoe counties  Friday, local leaders and health experts are still grappling with whether to mandate a mask policy. 

Municipalities across the metro region have enacted measures requiring face coverings. Denver, Boulder and Wheat Ridge all have done so, but in Aurora, there are lingering questions about science and enforcement. 

Leaders are torn on the mandate, many hoping another jurisdiction will take the lead and make the decision. So far, the only action everybody has agreed on is education and encouragement. 

That could change come Monday, when Tri-County Health Department Executive Director Dr. John Douglas meets with the Aurora City Council. Neither Tri-County nor the city have come to a solid conclusion on masks. 

The board of health decided this week “an aggressive public education campaign” would be the best course of action right now. Later, if data indicates the campaign isn’t working, the board may reconsider a mandate.

For now, it seems a majority of people in Aurora are wearing masks. A recent anecdotal study of several facilities across the metroplex, including 10 in Aurora, showed that about 75 percent of residents were wearing masks in public.

Last week, City Manager Jim Twombly declined to issue a citywide mask mandate. He currently has the power to do so under the city’s disaster declaration.

He instead pitched the topic to council members, who sparred over the issue but ultimately stopped short of pursuing any formal legislation or order.

“I think encouragement falls on deaf ears,” Twombly said at one point during the conversation. But some council members worried about enforcement and whether masks are actually helpful in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Councilman Dave Gruber said those not wanting to abide by the order may cause more trouble than it’s worth. There have been at least two instances across the country where store mask policies have led to shootings. 

That weighs on decision-makers’ minds in addition to an email threat sent to Tri-County board of health members this week that threatened “a hot-shooting, no-bulls*** civil war” over the stay-at-home extension, which came with exceptions allowing non-critical businesses to operate curbside.

A spokesman for the Aurora Police Department said investigators are also currently looking into a handful of incidents of vandalism at the Tri-County outpost on East Hampden Avenue.

If masks were to be mandated, Mayor Mike Coffman has said the burden would likely be on the business to be the enforcer. In talking to the board of health, Dr. Douglas said law enforcement agencies across the tri-county region have said they don’t have the capacity to enforce a mask policy, much like they didn’t for the stay-at-home order.

On a call with reporters Wednesday, Coffman said he has grappled with the issue while continuously receiving comments from residents who both do and do not want the city to demand residents cover their faces.

“I’m really wrestling with this issue,” he said. “I’m not a public health professional by any means, nor do we have them on our staff, so it puts us in a difficult position.”

Unlike Denver and its city-county model, Aurora doesn’t operate its own health department. Aurora sprawls across three counties and so local leaders, including Coffman, have said they feel more comfortable with the health department making health-related decisions. 

When the city council first considered the mask mandate, Councilwoman Nicole Johnston said an order from the health department may be the best option as Aurora hasn’t made any health decisions on its own yet. Aurora mandating masks could open the door to questions of why the city of Aurora didn’t make decisions on stay-at-home or other issues that could come up in the future.

There’s also the question of science. 

Councilwoman Francoise Bergan highlighted during last week’s call that while she wears a mask to protect herself, scientific data still lacks. 

Dr. Douglas has highlighted the nebulousness around mask science as a detractor to a possible mandate, although Tri-County wrote in a news release this week “the laboratory-based evidence is sufficiently strong that entities such as the CDC and the Surgeon General have recently strongly endorsed the use of non-medical or cloth face masks.”

Still, the quantitative jury is still mostly out, according to Douglas.

“Despite biologic plausibility, no community-based studies actually (prove) their effectiveness,” he told the board of health members this week.

— Quincy Snowdon contributed to this report