Polis Releases Rural Colorado Counties From Most Mask Restrictions

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A sign at the host stand by the door of Steamworks Brewing in Durango reminds patrons of face mask and social distancing requirements in place in the restaurant, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021.

Nearly half of Colorado's counties will be freed from a comprehensive statewide mask mandate, though masks will still be required for everyone in schools, child care settings, public areas of government buildings and certain other indoor settings.

Gov. Jared Polis announced the changes Friday afternoon. In a release accompanying the order, he noted that as more people are protected by vaccine, life can return to normal. But he still encouraged mask-wearing in indoor settings, even in places that will soon be released from mandatory compliance.

“We are making incredible progress with getting vaccines into arms and protecting our most vulnerable, but until everyone can get the vaccine and our COVID cases are reduced, taking precautions to prevent a surge in cases and further spread of the disease is the smart thing to do and the right thing to do and helps keep everything open,” Polis said in a statement. “Every community has been impacted differently by this pandemic, and we want to ensure this order is reflective of that. We’re almost there, Colorado, but we need to keep this up just a little bit longer.”

The new order releases counties now at level "green" on the state's color-coded COVID-19 restrictions dial from the statewide mask mandate. That amounts to 31 rural counties that are home to just fewer than 240,000 people. Those counties will still have the authority to set their own mask restrictions should they choose.

For the rest of the state, masks must continue to be worn when in public indoor spaces with 10 or more people who have not been vaccinated, or whose vaccination status is unknown, have gathered.

And even for counties at the green level, masks will still be required in schools, child care centers, "indoor children’s camps, public-facing state government facilities, congregate care facilities, prisons, jails, emergency medical and other healthcare settings, and personal services and limited health care settings," according to the order.

“We fought hard to get Colorado kids back in school successfully, and we’re not going to jeopardize Colorado’s return of in-person learning by changing the mask policy this school year,” Polis said.

Counties now at level green include most of those on the Eastern Plains, in the San Luis Valley and in the northwest corner of the state. But counties along the entire Front Range, including metro Denver, are classified as either blue or yellow so residents there will need to continue to adhere to mask wearing indoor, including at restaurants or shops, where 10 or more people are present.

Those counties still have the option of creating their own public health orders to institute restrictions beyond the state order.

Gunnison is one of those counties with low enough virus incidence levels to be classified now as green on the state's website, meaning the state's mask mandate will no longer apply in most settings. But Gunnison's public health director, Joni Reynolds, said before Polis made the change that she's not planning on removing local restrictions just yet, even though things have improved enough that the county hasn't recorded any hospitalizations in the last two weeks.  

She worries that without the symbolic force of a state mandate, employees of counties or businesses that want to keep mask precautions will have to enforce it on their own, which might put them at risk. Some will see the high profile change at the state level as a sign “we're on our way out of the pandemic,” even if it's too soon to say that, Reynolds said.

Last March, Reynolds issued a countywide mask order, which she said still she plans to continue.

“My intent is to stay with that until July 1,” she said, adding she'd still like to see continued coordination both between the state and counties, and among counties.

"To the extent possible if we can work together, instead of having chaos around the state, when it comes to what the requirements are, it'd be really beneficial," she said. Last year, things improved once the Polis administration weighed in with consistent statewide standards. "So going back to that place where we don't have those consistent standards across the state is going to make it really difficult."

Tri-County, the health department for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties, is the only one in Colorado to compile mask data throughout the pandemic. When the project began last June, 70 percent were seen wearing a mask. That grew to 90 percent plus after the state and Tri-County ordered a mandate in July. It’s mostly stayed there, for all three counties, ever since.

Tri-County executive director John Douglas said he's of "mixed" minds about the change to ease the statewide order, noting "there's a desire to have a little more freedom, not wearing a mask."

Most Coloradans are still not vaccinated, though the pace of vaccinations are picking up. Douglas thinks easing mask requirements "makes a lot of sense if everybody's vaccinated," which is similar to what the CDC said a couple of weeks ago about household guidance.

"I think it makes less sense if you've got unvaccinated people together." So Douglas is urging people to keep up with masking and distancing. None of the counties his agency serves is freed from the statewide restrictions yet.

"We've got an important messaging job in front of us that, 'yes, it actually still is important.' And actually in some places it's still is required," he said. "And even when it's not required, we don't want you to let your guard down. I'll tell you that."

The new state order will take effect Sunday.

Where masks are required in Colorado