The Tri-County Health Department's board acknowledged that masks have become a political issue but said their value as public health tools mattered more as they narrowly adopted a masking order July 8.
In a virtual meeting on the Zoom video conferencing platform, the nine-member Board of Health for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties voted to make wearing masks in public mandatory but gave local governments the ability to opt-out of the requirement.
“How do we make the best decisions for the health of our community?” board member Julie Duran Mullica said. “We've heard from several members today that they support masking, that they agree with it and support wearing masks. So, politics aside, that should be the uniform message from this board for our three jurisdictions.”
The board approved the order 5-4, with yes votes from all of Adams County's delegates — Mullica, Richard Delaney and Board President Rosanna Reyes — as well as Arapahoe County delegate Jan Brainard and Douglas County's Paulette Joswick.
Board member Dr. Thomas Fawell, who represents Arapahoe County, said masks do help cut down the spread of the disease, noting that surgeons wear them during surgery to keep from spreading their germs to vulnerable patients.
He was still not in favor of mandating them.
“I think a mandate for a region or a county is fruitless from the standpoint that I don't think it's going increase the percentage of people who use masks,” Fawell said. “Our time to educate the public was at the beginning and we just do not have the wherewithal to have a massive campaign —but that is what should have been done.”
The public health order does not take effect immediately, giving staff time to write it up. It is scheduled to stay in place for 90 days once it does begin and can be extended, rescinded or changed by the health department staff.
The virtual meeting was interrupted several times by people demanding to speak, using profanity or calling the board members Communists.
'We changed our mind'
Tri-County's Board of Health had voted to not make masks mandatory at a May 6 meeting virtual meeting, with Executive Director John Douglas saying then he was unsure if a requirement would encourage more people to wear masks.
“Frankly, at the beginning we were not getting great public health messaging,” Douglas said. “Even the surgeon general came out and said they don't work. And then, four weeks after that, we changed our mind.”
Conditions have changed now, with Douglas noting that the number of positive cases in all three counties has begun trending up.
As of July 8, there were 11,303 positive cases of COVID-19 in the Tri-County region — 4,581 in Adams County, 5,569 in Arapahoe County and 1,153 in Douglas County. In all 554 have died from COVID-19 in the region.
“It has gotten to be politicized now, in a way that I've never seen a public health intervention fall prey to,” he said. “But it's made the promotion of masking more challenging than it might otherwise be.”
The board did not say how the order would be enforced, by local governments, police or by the Board of Health itself.
Douglas said he there must be an understanding of what businesses can do when faced with people that refuse to wear masks and cautioned against punishing businesses, for example removing business licenses or permits if a store serves customers that refuse to wear masks.
“I think that businesses that are only the front lines actually have the greatest to benefit by their patrons wearing masks,” Douglas said. “It's the workers in those settings who have the most to lose.”
The board's decision came a day after the city of Englewood issued an order, effective July 9, requiring the public to wear face coverings when visiting businesses and riding public transportation.
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