Denver issues “vax or mask” mandate, joining metro counties in new push to fight COVID surge

Denver will join most of the metro area in requiring masks be worn in indoor public places starting Wednesday.

Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties also will be under nearly identical mandates, which require masks in places like stores, gyms and entertainment venues.

Businesses in Denver and the other three metro counties that require all employees and customers to show proof of vaccination can seek an exemption under which they wouldn’t have to require masks.

“We are issuing what I like to call a ‘vax or mask’ mandate,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at a news conference. “Either your venue or business is requiring proof of vaccination or you choose to be a place where only masks are required.”

The mandates in Denver, Adams and Arapahoe counties apply to people 2 and older, while Jefferson County’s starts at age 3.

Most of the metro health departments (other than Douglas County’s new Board of Health) had sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis asking for a statewide mask mandate. Douglas County left its local public health agency, the Tri-County Health Department, to avoid requiring masks in schools — though it ultimately allowed the Douglas County School District to set its own mandate after a lawsuit.

Boulder, Pitkin and Larimer counties already have mask mandates in place. Generally, the metro-area counties try to synch up their public health orders.

The orders exempt people who are actively eating or drinking at restaurants; who have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks; who rely on lip-reading for communication; who are performers in a show or leaders of a religious service, if they’re 12 feet from others; or who are participating in individual sports, like gymnastics, if they’re 25 feet from others.

Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment, had said Monday during a presentation to the Jefferson County Board of Health that the city had decided to mandate vaccines for its employees, in hopes that would be a more successful strategy than requiring masks or proof of vaccination in certain public places. Those measures help, but getting as many people as possible vaccinated is the key, he said.

“Those are not the tools that get us out of the pandemic,” he said.

Vaccination is the surest way to avoid getting COVID-19 or becoming seriously ill from it, but it’s not a quick fix. The Johnson & Johnson shot provides its highest level of protection after two weeks, but most people have opted for two-shot sequences, which are somewhat more effective. Depending on which of the two-shot vaccines a person chooses, it takes five or six weeks to reach full protection.

Lexi Nolen, deputy director of Boulder County Public Health, said Monday that mask mandates were one of the less-restrictive ways to meet the goals of preventing unnecessary deaths, keeping hospitals from being overrun and allowing life to go on as normally as possible. If most of the state does nothing now, lockdowns might be the only tool left to get the situation under control, as Europe has found, she said.

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