In his second press conference focusing on Colorado's fight against COVID-19 in three days, Governor Jared Polis announced an order he'd previously resisted issuing: a statewide mandate for all residents of the state at least ten years old to wear masks in public settings.
The order goes into effect at midnight tonight, July 16.
Symbolism was heavy during the announcement. Polis broke with the usual protocol to wear his mask throughout the address, as did his guests — state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy and two mayors, Denver's Michael Hancock and Aurora's Mike Coffman. Moreover, the participation of the progressive Hancock and the conservative Coffman allowed Polis to emphasize his frequently voiced contention that facial coverings shouldn't be viewed through an ideological lens.
"Wearing a mask is not a political statement," he stressed. "I don't know how, in anybody's mind, it became political. The virus doesn't care what political party you're in. ... The virus is the virus, and it's a threat to every single one of us."
On multiple occasions, Polis described the current virus trends as "alarming" — an assertion underscored by Herlihy, who showed off a variety of graphics depicting trend changes. She pointed out that cases and hospitalizations in the state have gone up substantially over the past week or so, and said that if the curve continues to rise, Colorado has the potential to exceed its ICU bed capacity in early September, with a peak occurring the following month. Also of concern are shifts in what she shorthanded as the "R-value" of the virus. A value of one means that each person infected with COVID-19 is only passing it to one other person — and the goal has been to keep the number at that level or lower. Several weeks ago, Herlihy said, the value was indeed under one. Two weeks ago, however, it rose to just over one. A week ago, it hit 1.3, and current estimates put it at between 1.6 and 1.8.
Other changes have taken place in "the age distribution of our cases," Herlihy said. "As time has gone on, a greater number are occurring in those under the age of forty. There's also an increase in the number of children infected — most of them older children, in their teens. Infections of older adults remain low relative to other age groups. But similarly, adults who are forty-plus represent a greater proportion of hospitalizations. We've seen an increase of hospitalizations of middle-aged adults, and we're also starting to see more hospitalizations of older adults, too."
Why have the rates moved in this direction? Among the explanations suggested by Herlihy were an influx of visitors to Colorado from places such as Florida, Texas and Arizona, where COVID-19 is spreading even more quickly than it is here, and what she called "increased contact rates due to behavior or policies."
Polis said he decided to issue the mask order — after previously stating his preference for local control — based on assorted surveys that showed the use of facial coverings goes up when such an edict is in place, and that attention to social distancing also improves slightly, or at least doesn't decrease. Likewise, he was influenced by stats suggesting that the virus is spreading more quickly in places without mask orders.
During his time at the mic, Hancock praised Polis for his actions and suggested that the order would have a positive impact on people in public-facing jobs who may have had difficulty in the past convincing unmasked customers to cover up. Staffers at mountain resorts dealing with tourists previously could only "ask for compliance," he said. "Now this gives them a tool to say, 'No one has a choice anymore. We all must wear masks to protect one another.'" Hancock also reiterated his intention, forcefully voiced at his own press conference on July 14, to increase enforcement actions in Denver regarding mask usage — and Polis divulged that the state order won't supersede such city or county efforts.
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Coffman, meanwhile, admitted that he hasn't always been on board with mask orders, but watching the data take a worrisome turn made him change his mind. "I strongly support the statewide mandate," he said. "I believe that it's the best and the least invasive and least costly public-health option that is available to us to stem the spread of the COVID-19 virus. The alternatives are to shut down businesses and force our schools to remain closed if preventative actions are not taken and the COVID numbers increase to the point where further restrictions are required."
Another plus from Coffman's perspective: A statewide order prevents a "patchwork" of rules that differ from place to place — an unintended consequence of the opt-out clause in a recent mask rule conceived by Tri-County Health. Opting out won't be possible under the order penned by Polis, who emphasized that people shouldn't have to keep track of what jurisdiction they're in at any given moment to know that they're being protected.
Other announcements included a two-week pause in the issuance of variances to counties from the state public-health order — a similar action to one taken by Denver Mayor Hancock yesterday. And Polis pledged that the state would be able to provide one medical-grade mask per week for every teacher and ancillary school employee at districts across the state.
Still, the mask order remained in the spotlight, in part because of the stark terms Polis used in justifying it. "The time to act is now," he said. "We're really on the knife's edge. Many nearby states have shown us what will happen if we don't regain our footing and take social distancing and masks seriously."