Coronavirus

Who Is and Isn't Following Metro Denver COVID Mask Orders

Complaints have been coming in.
Complaints have been coming in. Google maps
On November 24, the Tri-County Health Department, whose jurisdiction includes Arapahoe and Adams counties, joined the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment and Jefferson County Public Health in taking a new step in the battle against COVID-19. The agencies imposed a mask-and-vax mandate that called for either the use of face coverings or proof of vaccination for all public indoor spaces through at least January 3.

During the announcement, Tri-County Health Executive Director Dr. John Douglas acknowledged that the move was a "controversial and unpopular measure" with many residents, but stressed that it was necessary to prevent hospital capacity from being exceeded over the holidays.

Over the course of the next several days, we visited stores in other counties with mask mandates, and found that compliance varied. In Boulder County, which put a face-covering order in place in September (Larimer County also was an early adopter), all customers in more than a half-dozen stores along the Pearl Street Mall were masked up. The same was true at a Whole Foods outlet in Denver County, where every nose and mouth seemed to be under wraps.

The situation was mixed in Jefferson County. While masking was universal at two Arc Thrift Stores, as many as half of the customers at one Jeffco King Soopers were unmasked on consecutive days, and the situation was the same at a Dollar Tree on November 30. One unmasked man at that stop told a fellow patron that he could skip a face covering because he was "triple vaccinated" — an observation that ignored the possibility that he could still be carrying the virus and pass it on to others. When he walked past the checkout stand, an employee muttered under her breath, "Where's your mask, Buck-o?" as a family of five walked in similarly uncovered.

None of the stores we visited had employees at entrances to check on vaccination status or mask usage.

When the mask-and-vax order was imposed, did health officials know that compliance would be spotty? We put that question to a couple of local health departments, and Becky O'Guin, spokesperson for Tri-County Health, offered a polite version of "yes."

"Based on experience in other counties, we expected that compliance with the PHO [public-health order] would increase over time, based on both growing awareness and changes in perceived and expected social norms among members of the public," O'Guin said. "Like many of the public-health orders, we anticipated having to respond to complaints about non-compliance and work to address those through education and seek voluntary compliance."

According to Ashley Sever, spokesperson for the Jeffco health department, "When new public-health orders are issued, we understand there may be a brief learning curve when businesses are learning about the details of the order and putting implementation steps in place. We will continue to work with Jeffco businesses and facilities to ensure they are aware of the order and have the support they need to meet the order requirements. All businesses and facilities are required to meet the requirements of the order. The majority of people in Jefferson County are now fully vaccinated and deserve businesses who care as much about protecting them from COVID-19 as they care about protecting themselves and others."

Did their departments determine that while the most extreme mask-haters wouldn't go along with the order, mask-wearing would go up among others, at least marginally improving the situation?  "Any increase in mask-wearing will help prevent the spread of disease," O'Guin responds. "The greater the percentage of mask-wearing, the better. Recent experience in Larimer County encouraged us that getting up to 80 percent mask-wearing over several weeks was realistic, which could make a big difference. In just the first four days of the PHO, estimated rates increased from the low 50 percent level to around 60 percent in both Adams and Arapahoe counties."

In the meantime, complaints about places that fail to enforce the mask order are flooding in. As of November 29, O'Guin estimated that the TCHD had received more than seventy, and said that the department is working to address these gripes "over the phone through an education-first approach."

Sever has found the same situation in Jeffco. "Yes, we have received some complaints from the public reporting violations of the order," she said. "Our approach to all public-health orders is to provide education and support to obtain voluntary compliance, and to only pursue legal options when all other options to ensure compliance are exhausted."

Both emphasized that their departments will pursue all options.

"Mask wearing is a proven prevention approach that can be especially effective the more broadly implemented it is," O'Guin said. "It remains critically important at this point, as our hospitals are under extreme pressure to avoid having to ration care. In addition, masks can be effective in preventing transmission of a range of variants, which may be particularly important if we learn over the next several weeks that current vaccines work less well against the new Omicron variant than they have been working against current and earlier variants. Of course, mask-wearing is one layer of a multi-layered prevention approach, which includes getting vaccinated, hand-washing, physical distancing and providing good indoor ventilation."

Added Sever: "As a community, we must act now to address the sustained surge in COVID-19 cases, protect our health-care system capacity, and prevent unnecessary illness and death. We are calling on all Jeffco residents ages five-plus to get a COVID-19 vaccine (or booster if they’re eligible) and to wear a mask in all public indoor spaces. These steps are proven strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19. Slowing the spread through vaccination and masking also helps reduce the chances of additional variants emerging."
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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.
Contact: Michael Roberts