Colorado Gov. Jared Polis declined Thursday to issue a statewide order mandating mask-wearing in public, despite increased calls for the state to intervene.
“I don’t think there’s too many people sitting around saying, ‘I’m not going to wear a mask until there’s some piece of paper,” Polis said at a news conference.
But, he said he hasn’t ruled it out, either. More than half of Colorado has face-covering ordinances. That’s not enough, the governor said.
Public health experts agree on the efficacy of masks in reducing transmission. Polis said masks not only save lives but help the economy.
“Wear a damn mask,” he said.
The state health department reported 409 new coronavirus infections on Thursday, bringing the total confirmed cases since March to 35,525. Most of the new cases were recorded in recent days. An additional 37 people are confirmed to have died from COVID-19, bringing the total deaths to 1,581. In all, 1,706 Coloradans have died with the disease in their system.
The number of people hospitalized with confirmed cases of COVID-19 also continues to increase, with the state’s hospitals treating 202 patients as of Thursday, according to the Colorado Hospital Association.
The jump in coronavirus infections is attributed to less social distancing as more parts of the state reopen. In Colorado, a higher percentage of test results are coming back positive, meaning the jump in cases is not due to increased testing.
House Rep. Kyle Mullica, an emergency room nurse, would like to see a statewide approach.
“The governor has said that masks save lives, that he strongly encourages (wearing them), and if that’s the case, we should have a requirement in Colorado that we should wear masks out in public,” Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat, said.
Last week, Polis ordered bars and nightclubs to close again, the first time the state has taken a step backward in the reopening process.
That’s why Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman now supports a regional mask mandate: “Do we use the least invasive tool in front of us or keep the economy from opening up and cause more suffering?”
The Tri-County Health Department is drafting a mask mandate for Arapahoe, Douglas and Adams counties but has said individual communities can opt out. Coffman said a patchwork of regulations won’t work. He thinks the governor should issue a set of requirements for rural areas and others for urban and suburban areas.
Polis said part of the problem with a statewide mandate is the state’s inability to enforce regulations. He cited the same issue in regard to lockdown orders in March before changing his position.
Public health officials say cities and counties face the same problem. They don’t have unlimited resources to enforce such regulations, either.
“For most of us, really all of us, it’s going to be a 99.9% educational effort,” said John Douglas, Tri-County Health Department director.
Although Douglas understands the argument that conditions are different in different parts of the state, the hospital systems are connected. When one reaches capacity, patients are transferred to other hospitals.
Chana Goussetis, a Boulder County Public Health spokesperson, said the county is seeing an uptick in the number of people visiting its trails and open spaces, but many don’t bring masks, despite the county’s order.
“A statewide mask order would make it a whole lot easier for the community,” Goussetis said.
But Daniel Goldberg, a public health law and ethics professor at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, believes the downsides of a statewide mandate outweigh the risks not only because of the enforcement difficulty but because of an erosion of trust. He also sees the value in each county making its own decisions based on its residents and conditions.
“I’m generally strongly in favor of localizing public health decision-making, especially in the face of a global health pandemic,” he said.
Reporter Jessica Seaman contributed to this story.