Centennial City Council split on sticking with Tri-County mask order

Officials must decide whether to opt out of order on masks in public

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The question of whether to go along with the Tri-County Health Department's order for wearing masks in public has sparked an unusually impassioned discussion from the Centennial City Council, with a slight majority appearing to support opting out of the order.

Quoting Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, City Councilmember Don Sheehan said: “I don't think there's too many people sitting around waiting to wear a mask until there's a piece of paper” that tells them to.

At the council's July 13 work session — a meeting where proposals were up for discussion but not a vote — the debate partly centered around whether a mandate would convince more residents to wear a mask.

But the deeper and more contentious level of the conversation fell along the divide between putting faith in people's personal responsibility and the effect that individual actions have on others in a pandemic that's on the rise in Colorado.

“For me, it's a matter of principle — it's all about principle,” Councilmember Kathy Turley said, adding that she trusts the public.

Turley expressed skepticism the health agency's mandate could force people to comply and argued the city should “validate (people's) responsible behavior because (they) do know better.”

Roughly 75% of people in Arapahoe County are estimated to wear masks in public, based on counts at stores by Tri-County Health, the local public health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.

The agency on July 8 approved an order by a 5-4 vote to require masks in public indoor spaces, and outdoors where people can't remain 6 feet away from others, beginning July 24. The order includes a long list of exceptions, including for disabilities and medical or mental health conditions.

It also requires businesses to refuse customers who aren't wearing masks, and those who don't comply could have their business licenses suspended or revoked.

Counties and municipalities can opt out of the order by July 23. Centennial's council will vote whether to opt out on July 20.

Councilmembers Candace Moon, Marlo Alston, Mike Sutherland and Christine Sweetland voiced support for remaining under the mandate, and Councilmembers Sheehan, Richard Holt, Turley and Tammy Maurer were for opting out.

Less decided was Mayor Stephanie Piko, who said it doesn't matter to her which way the council votes but wanted citizens to be able to weigh in more on the issue.

But Piko appeared to lean away from the order and wondered about some actions the city could take to encourage mask-wearing if it opts out.

“No matter what we do,” Piko said, “somebody's going to be really mad.

Disagreement on method

Everyone on Centennial's nine-member council affirmed the importance of masks, with some citing federal officials' comments reflecting the growing consensus around mask-wearing in combatting COVID-19.

A person who goes out without a mask takes on “the responsibility of not only putting themselves in harm's way of possibly contracting COVID-19, but they also could infect others,” Moon said. She noted: “There are many people out here who are asymptomatic but are carrying the COVID-19 virus.”

Alston and Sweetland chimed in on the role mask-wearing can play in the economy in allowing business to safely continue. The pandemic has leveled a “huge decrease in city revenues” in Centennial based on sales tax, Sweetland said.

Some councilmembers took issue with Tri-County's proposed enforcement of the order having “no teeth,” as Holt put it. Others noted any person who violates the order may be subject a fine or jail time under state law, according to Tri-County.

However, Tri-County plans to focus on seeking voluntary compliance “through education, technical assistance and warning notices,” the order says.

“But it's not dissimilar to speed limits,” City Attorney Bob Widner said. “We know there's not going to be a police officer on every street, but people (generally) follow speed limits.”

If people know the order won't be aggressively enforced, though, people may not comply, Widner added.

Businesses in tough spot

Councilmembers also traded arguments on whether the order would be helpful or harmful to businesses.

Any business open to the public that allows a person without an exemption on the business' premises without a mask “may be subject to the suspension or revocation of its license by the appropriate licensing authority as provided by law,” the order says.

“So we're forcing our businesses now, after they've been through pretty much hell after being closed,” to shoulder the burden of upholding the order, Sheehan said.

Said Holt: “If you're leaving the enforcement to the barista at Starbucks or the greeter at Costco,” that's problematic.

Sutherland had a different take: If the city opts out, businesses will be seen as “the bad guys” for enforcing their own in-house mask requirements. But if the city goes along with the order, he said, business owners can say, “'There is a health order in place that says we are not to let people in without masks.'"

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