Denver Slams Douglas County for Opting Out of COVID Safety Rules

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in a photo from November 2020.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in a photo from November 2020.
During an April 14 press conference, Mayor Michael Hancock and Denver Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Bob McDonald outlined new approaches to COVID-19 in the Mile High City. Included among them are a revised mask mandate that immediately lifts the requirement to wear a facial covering outdoors and an updated public-health order that will move the city to Level Blue on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's dial dashboard as of Friday, April 16, when the dial becomes advisory rather than compulsory.

Most metro counties are making similar moves. The exception is Douglas County, which is currently at Level Red on the dashboard but is choosing to opt out of COVID-19 guidelines recommended by the Tri-County Public Health Department, which also oversees Adams and Arapahoe counties and is one of the agencies that's been coordinating with Denver. McDonald made it clear that he considers Douglas County's choice highly problematic.

"I think it's a mistake to move to whatever level of compliance we have on the dial to nothing," McDonald said.

Right now, Hancock confirmed, Denver's metrics put it in what's technically Level Yellow. The move to Level Blue on April 16 means that restaurants and gyms can begin operating at 100 percent capacity as long as six feet of distancing is maintained, but personal-services purveyors are limited to 50 percent capacity and bars can operate at 25 percent capacity — up to 75 people.

Hancock acknowledged that these moves are intended to strike a balance between keeping residents safe and allowing the economy to function at a faster clip. As he put it, "The city is open for business."

At the same time, though, Hancock said that rising case counts and hospitalizations likely caused by more transmissible and possibly more dangerous variants of the virus argue against the Douglas County approach. Instead, Denver and the other metro counties will spend thirty days at Level Blue, at which point officials will evaluate the situation to determine if the order should be extended or if it can be lifted entirely.

Hancock expressed hope that standards can be eased a month from now, particularly given Denver's success at vaccinating its citizenry. Thus far, about 40 percent of the city's adult population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, Hancock said, and by the end of May, at least that number and probably more will be fully protected. He urged everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible, including those hesitant to get inoculated.

For his part, McDonald said the federal decision to pause usage of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine over blood-clotting concerns shouldn't cause supply problems in Denver because the city has made the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines the centerpiece of its program. At present, approximately 8,700 people in Denver are receiving vaccinations every day.

In another difference with Douglas County, Denver won't immediately bless any large event. "We don't want to go from a capacity of 175 people to thousands and thousands of people congregating, even in an outdoor setting, where it's safer," McDonald emphasized. As a result, Denver will require a mitigation plan for any outdoor event expected to attract up 5,000 attendees and consultation with the DDPHE for larger outdoor events, at least for the next thirty days.

In response to a question, McDonald stressed that Douglas County's decision could have serious repercussions beyond its borders.

"Anytime we have counties that are close to or surrounding Denver that throw requirements out the window, it presents an elevated risk to Denver," he said. "When you're coming to Denver, we do have restrictions that remain in place, and we need visitors to comply with them."

Douglas County made "a risky move," McDonald concluded. "We're certainly not going to do that in Denver."