After a nudge from federal health officials, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Friday dropped the remaining mask requirements in the state, even as COVID-19 case numbers here remain among the highest in the nation.
“If you’re vaccinated, you don’t need to wear a mask at all,” Polis said. But he added that if you are not vaccinated the state will continue to “suggest” that you wear a mask when indoor around strangers.
Masks may still be required at events with more than 500 people, and will be required for most schools, childcare and health care settings and in any other business that mandates them. But now even teachers and students who are fully vaccinated can ditch the mask for the last few weeks of school if their school district agrees, even inside the school if they choose.
For the most part, what was required for much of the past year is now simply "suggested" or "advised" and only for the unvaccinated.
“This is certainly a big step,” Polis said. “We have reached a level of immunization where the pandemic isn’t over, but we are safer.”
Dr. Michelle Barron, who specializes in infectious diseases at UCHealth called it a "calculated gamble" that may result in increased vaccination rates.
"I think it's a very calculated gamble. I think the odds are in its favor..." Barron said. "And I really do think it will incentivize a lot of people (to get vaccinated), but we'll see."
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Dr. John Swartzberg, clinical professor emeritus and infectious diseases expert at the University of California Berkeley School of Public Health, also used a gambling analogy to describe Polis's decision. But he is less optimistic.
"The odds are a little better than even that the governor's plans will not result in more cases and deaths," Swartzberg said in response to emailed questions. "A little better than even is not good enough when we're talking about people's health and lives. Instead, I would have set aspirational goals (e.g., a positivity rate of less than three percent to five percent; a fully-vaccinated percent greater than 70 percent). When they would be met or significantly approached, that would be the time to do what he is now doing."
University of Colorado Epidemiologist May Chu agreed that the state is taking a chance, but she said individuals who have yet to get inoculated against COVID-19 are doing the gambling.
"If you are not vaccinated, then there is some risk," Chu said.
Colorado's universal face covering requirement has been in effect in one form or another since July 16 of last year, making Friday's announcement a milestone in the recovery from the pandemic. Some government workers, and those in critical businesses have been required to wear masks even longer, since last April.
The move to eliminate it began with Thursday's announcement from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that they believe fully vaccinated individuals are safe to go without face coverings even indoors around strangers based on the near universal protection from serious illness offered by the vaccines.
Colorado's mask change comes as hotspots remain
But Polis's decision comes as Colorado, with a recent daily average of 24 new cases per 100,000 residents, is tied with Michigan for the most concerning rate in the nation. That number is actually a decrease over recent weeks, a trend Polis and state health officials have ascribed to increased acceptance of vaccinations.
But hotspots remain. With more than 200 cases reported on Wednesday in both Adams and Arapahoe Counties, they had one of the state’s highest daily averages, just as their shared health department plans to eliminate all COVID-19 restrictions beginning Sunday. Case rates also remain compatively elevated in pockets of the San Luis Valley in south central Colorado.
Dr. John Douglas, Jr., executive director of the Tri-County Health Department, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties said via email,that he generally agreed with creating more incentives for people to get vaccinated, including rolling back mask restrictions. His concern, he said, is that the speed of the change by both federal and state officials is dizzying for the public.
The "rapid roll-out by both has created much confusion particularly in the absence of existing systems to document vaccination status and guidance as to how to do such," Douglas said.
What the move means for local governments and businesses
By Sunday evening, most metro Denver counties including Denver, along with Larimer, Broomfield and Clear Creek will have eliminated all COVID-19 restrictions on business and workplace capacity.
With 81 percent of the state’s acute care hospital beds already in use, and more than 600 still hospitalized with COVID-19, the elimination of restrictions comes with some risk of a virus resurgence. But a full re-opening of the economy also puts some pressure on the nearly 50 percent of Coloradans who have not yet been vaccinated, and will now need to be if they want to safely resume their pre-pandemic lives without extraordinary protective measures.
But Polis said he couldn't see his way clear to require unvaccinated individuals to continue wearing masks. There is no "vaccine passport" in Colorado, to categorize people based on their vaccination status, and Polis said creating one would be an invasion of privacy. So, while he thinks an unvaccinated person would be wise to wear a mask in public settings, he chose not to order it.
"There is no comprehensive way to have a state vaccination passport," Polis said. "It violates people's privacy. There's no practical way to implement it."
Businesses retain the right to require masks for the protection of customers and employees. Polis said he will continue to carry a mask in his pocket, and politely put it on if asked by a business owner.
"There will be many businesses that continue to do that," Polis noted. "Perhaps your local grocery store for the next few weeks, perhaps other businesses that are frequented by others."
Confusion about mask rules
The end of statewide mask restrictions may yet trigger another round of confusion for some people. Counties retain the right to set public health conditions that are stricter than the state's, and, like businesses, school districts will also be able to work with their public health departments to set their own requirements for schools. Federal restrictions requiring masks on airplanes or trains, or in federal buildings also remain in effect.
But in the immediate aftermath of the Polis announcement, the San Juan Basin Public Health Department in Durango said they would draft a local advisory that would strongly recommend indoor mask wearing, and as others are expected to do, used it as an opportunity to further encourage the unvaccinated to take the step.
"The shift of most public health orders to advisories and the continued spread of the virus presents a clear choice to unvaccinated residents: Receive protection through vaccination or put yourself and your family at high risk for catching the severe variants of COVID-19 circulating in our community," according to a release from the agency.
“Unfortunately, the virus is still spreading at high rates across Colorado and in our community," said Liane Jollon, SJBPH Executive Director. "It is more important than ever to get vaccinated right away to protect yourself and your family." That, she said, included wearing a mask in public indoor settings "until the level of infection in our community drops."
The announcement of the end of the mask order was largely seen as inevitable by public health officials.
Dr. Mark Johnson, the former Jefferson County public health director, noted that some weeks ago there was still concern that vaccinated individuals might transmit the virus even if they remained asymptomatic.
"The evidence now leans away from that," said Johnson, who is the county's chief medical officer, via text. "Given the strength of the protection from the vaccine and the unlikely transmission from those who are vaccinated, there is little reason to recommend mask use in those who are vaccinated."
Barron said she would recommend that people who are immunocompromised, even if fully vaccinated, should still be careful about being in crowds of unmasked people.
"I would say this is not any different than what we've been recommending throughout the whole COVID pandemic," Barron said. "You need to assess your own personal risks, the risk of those that you live with or that you're around."
The restrictions on gatherings of more than 500 people, which have been occurring through waivers issued by the state health department, are now set to expire on June 1. After that, concerts, sporting events and other big summer gatherings could proceed more or less normally. The Rockies announced Friday afternoon that they would increase their allowed attendance to 35,000 on June 1. Polis repeatedly used the incentive of a return to normal to persuade the unvaccinated to join those who have gotten protection.
"I know that those who remain unvaccinated will make the right choice to wear a mask," Polis said. "And of course the even more important choice to get protected as quickly as possible."