Tri-County Health Department reverses ‘opt-out’ policy, institutes new mask mandate for schools

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GREENWOOD VILLAGE | In a dramatic reversal, the Tri-County Health Department board of directors rescinded its policy allowing individual counties to opt out of public health orders and voted to require all students to wear masks in school at a special meeting.

The Monday meeting was announced Friday after both Douglas and Adams counties opted out of a public health order the board passed August 18 requiring students ages 2-11 and staff that interact with them to mask in schools and childcare centers.

The opt-out policy was instituted by the board in November, and allowed county commissioners to opt out of “county wide” public health orders from the governor’s office and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

At Monday’s meeting, Tri-County Executive Director Dr. John Douglas noted now that public health orders are coming almost exclusively from the local public health department, the situation is very different.

“It’s become increasingly clear to our staff and to me that the current opt out policy has created concern and confusion,” Douglas said.

The provision “severely limits the ability of Tri-County to carry out our statutorily obligated duties,” he said.

Douglas was also critical of Gov. Jared Polis’ decision to leave almost all health decisions regarding the coronavirus in the hands of local public health departments during this stage of the pandemic, saying the state has created “a vacuum of public health effort to address these issues.”

At recent news conferences, Polis has repeatedly stated that he has no plans to impose statewide orders regarding masking, and would only consider doing so if school districts were having trouble maintaining in-person schooling.

After discussion among board members, the board voted 5-3 to rescind the opt-out policy. 

Douglas County representatives Dr. Linda Fielding and Kevin Bracken voted against along with Arapahoe County representative Dr. Thomas Falwell. Douglas County representative Kim Muramoto was not in attendance at the meeting.

Bracken is an interim replacement for Zach Nannestad, who resigned from the board last week citing a conflict of interest because he works for the Douglas County School District. He serves as chair of the Douglas County Public Health Advisory Committee.

Arapahoe County representative Jan Brainard said that the opt-out policy “was not functioning the way it was supposed to function.”

“We have heard people out of policies that weren’t even made yet,” she said.

Douglas then asked the board to consider passing another mask mandate, this time a universal mandate for all students in district schools along with children over 2 in daycare facilities.

The motion passed 5-3, with Fielding, Bracken and Falwell again voting against.

Tri-County staff confirmed 44 COVID-19 outbreaks through schools in Adams, Douglas and Arapahoe counties, contributing to what the CDC considers high rates of community transmission.

Douglas County lawyers, in an Aug. 25 letter to Tri-County Health, said meetings leading up to the vote to impose a mandate violated state open meeting laws, because the board deliberated the measure in closed session, according to reporting from Colorado Community Media. Local governments in Colorado are restricted in what business can be conducted in executive sessions.

Tri-County did not address the allegations during Monday’s meeting. However, Fielding claimed that she had information about a “criminal matter” regarding at least one board member being compromised and that the meeting should be declared invalid.

This is a compromised meeting,” she said. “It’s tainted by an atmosphere of coercion.”

Board president Kaia Gallagher said her allegations would need to be addressed in executive session because they have legal implications. The board will meet in executive session as soon as all the members are able to attend, she said.

Fielding proposed a motion calling for the meeting to be declared invalid because she believed it was called improperly and on too short of a notice. She and Bracken voted in favor of the motion, the rest of the board voted against it.

Fielding and Bracken were also the only two supporters of a motion put forth by Bracken to call for the mask mandate to be revoked “immediately” if case counts decrease within a certain short time frame.

The new order will go into effect on Wednesday, Sept. 1 and will last through Dec. 31 unless the board votes to change or rescind it. Local health conditions regarding the pandemic will be monitored daily as part of the order.

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