Polis: Statewide COVID Mask Order Should Be Dead by April 16

Governor Jared Polis during a March 17 visit to the vaccination site at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.
Governor Jared Polis during a March 17 visit to the vaccination site at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.
During a March 29 press conference about the ongoing battle against COVID-19 in Colorado, Governor Jared Polis essentially shrugged off data that shows the state's case counts are getting worse. He's gambling that a potential spike will be prevented by increasing vaccinations, for which all Coloradans over age sixteen will be eligible starting this Friday, April 2.

As a result, Polis also predicted that the current statewide mask mandate will revert to local control on April 16.

(Around the time Polis was making that prediction, the New York Times reported that President Joe Biden is urging states that have already eliminated mask mandates to restore them in light of comments made by Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who says she's feeling a sense of "impending doom" about a new surge of the novel coronavirus.)

If Colorado's statewide mask rules go away on April 16, as currently planned, Polis said that the only types of events that will remain under state mask guidelines are large get-togethers such as concerts and sporting competitions, which could potentially attract thousands of people. He stressed that such gatherings will be allowed to take place, but likely under capacity and distancing restrictions of the sort that will be imposed at Colorado Rockies games as they start up this week. Otherwise, counties will be able to decide whether rules related to mask use, business capacity, social distancing and the like should be maintained sometime into the future, or if they should be jettisoned in their entirety after the middle of the month.

As for the concerning stats, Polis noted that 807 new cases had been reported today; while conceding that case counts on Mondays and Tuesdays tend to be lower than other days of the week "because of the way reporting works," he argued that "the overall numbers are roughly stable," ranging between 800 and 1,300 per day. He also acknowledged that hospitalizations are back over 300 — 324 current hospitalizations today — after briefly dipping below that threshold earlier in March.

For these reasons, Polis stressed the importance of continuing to wear masks in public, keeping at least a six-foot distance from others in such settings, and avoiding large gatherings — at least for those who aren't yet fully protected by a vaccine.

"The last thing we want is a setback," Polis emphasized, telling Coloradans, "You're almost there. You'll be safe soon."

Polis then confirmed that everyone in the state over the age of sixteen can start signing up for vaccinations as of April 2; the Pfizer meds have been approved for the sixteen-and-up demographic, while Moderna and Johnson & Johnson can be given to anyone who's at least eighteen. (Polis expressed hope that vaccines will be approved for twelve- to-fifteen-year-olds in time for the next school year, but thinks children twelve and under will have to wait until the winter.) This sped-up schedule is possible because of increased vaccine supply: More than 413,000 doses are available in the state this week, Polis said, with amounts in that range expected over the weeks that follow.

He admitted that the general public may have a tough time getting an appointment this weekend, since most slots are already booked by people ages fifty and over. But Polis suggested that everyone who wants a vaccine should be able to get one by the end of May, or perhaps a couple of weeks earlier. Given the amount of time it takes to reach peak immunity, Polis predicted that life in Colorado should return to very near normal by July.  (Those inoculated by Pfizer and Moderna treatments reach approximately 95 percent protection two weeks after the second shot, while people getting the one-shot Johnson & Johnson medication hit around the 66 percent mark fourteen days after the fact.)

In the meantime, Polis celebrated some statistical achievements: 79 percent of Coloradans seventy and up have received at least their first dose of the vaccine, and 71 percent of the 65-and-up crowd is in the same situation. He encouraged health-care providers to prioritize vaccinations for those over sixty, even as a much broader age group is able to get the vaccine.

To handle the surge in demand, the state has opened large-scale vaccination sites in multiple locations; an additional location at Ball Arena should launch by April 1. The site at Dick's Sporting Goods Park had problems this past weekend due to staffing shortages — waits of up to three hours were reported — but Polis and Brigadier General Scott Sherman, who's managing vaccination distribution efforts for the state, insisted that the kinks have been ironed out and predicted smoother operations moving forward. The state is also about a week away from launching mobile vaccination buses that will offer shots in rural areas and parts of urban communities that are historically underserved.

During the Q&A that followed, the first question related to whether the state is opening up too quickly given the increasing number of virus variants, which are more transmissible than the original strain. "This is a race against the clock to safely vaccinate people while variants are on the rise," Polis responded, suggesting that if people can maintain strict safety protocols for the next few weeks, as vaccinations increase, this sprint will be won.

Polis deflected an inquiry about Custer County, which has publicly said that it will defy any further COVID-19 restrictions, saying that the issue falls within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's purview — although he did insist that all municipalities need to follow state law.

The current mask mandate expires April 4; after an extension of around two weeks, Polis said, "we will more formally devolve the authority." While students will continue to wear masks through the remainder of the school year, to make sure on-site education isn't interrupted, the de facto end of the statewide mask mandate will occur on April 16.

But that, Polis noted, is "barring any unexpected major change in the trajectory of the virus."

This post has been updated to include information from the New York Times article on President Joe Biden urging states to reinstitute mask mandates.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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