DOUGLAS COUNTY, Colo. -- During a business meeting Tuesday, Douglas County commissioners justified their decision to opt out of a mask mandate and pull out of the Tri-County Health Department.
The mask mandate is set to go into effect on July 24 for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties; however, all three areas were given the option of opting out.
Tri-County Health made the decision in a 5-4 vote on July 8, causing frustration among the Douglas County commissioners.
The next day, Douglas County sent a letter to the health department saying it was choosing to opt out of the mask mandate. Another letter was sent the following day informing Tri-County of Douglas County’s intent to leave the department and form its own.
Anger over county decisions
About a dozen people spoke out against the decision to opt out of the mask mandate and leave Tri-County Health during the county’s business meeting Tuesday.
“I was extremely disappointed to see the political stunt three Douglas county commissioners pulled by undoing the mask mandate,” said Highlands Ranch resident Safford Black. “This is nothing short of political grandstanding by our commissioners.”
Zach Sloan from Castle Rock, meanwhile, asked why the county decided to opt out of wearing masks but didn’t provide an alternative idea to keep transmissions from the disease lower.
Others questioned why a public health order has become so politicized and questioned whether the county is financially ready to handle its own health department.
Several asked the commissioners to reconsider their decisions on both the mask mandate and leaving Tri-County.
Afterward, commissioners took time to answer a few of the questions asked by residents and say they support the idea of wearing masks, just not mandating them.
“We cannot allow the critical decisions to affect the liberties and freedoms and livelihoods of Douglas County citizens to be left in the hands of unelected appointees,” said Commissioner Lora Thomas.
Commissioner Abe Laydon said he doesn’t oppose wearing masks and he and his family wear them when they leave the house. However, he could not support a mask mandate.
“The fact that someone from out of county appointed from Adams County made a decision for all of you in this room is really inconsistent with our values in this county and I think that underscores why Tri-County is no longer a good fit for our citizens,” Laydon said.
Commissioner Roger Partridge also said he could not support a mask mandate and said the county has simply outgrown its role in Tri-County, saying the decision has been culminating over several years.
Even with the option of opting out, the commissioners said this was the final straw in their decision to leave the health department.
A petition to stay
While some residents spoke out against leaving Tri-County Health at the hearing, a high school student started a Change.org petition to urge the Douglas County commissioners to reconsider.
Ethan Reed is a senior at Legend High School and says he is worried about what the move would do for the county.
“It’s dangerous, it’s putting our lives and well-being of the community at risk,” Reed said.
Reed was hoping 500 people would sign the petition but says he has been overwhelmed by how much support it has gotten. Already, thousands of people have signed it.
“I just really hope this urges our county commissioners to reconsider their actions right now with what they’re doing with withdrawing from Tri-County Health,” he said.
Opting in versus opting out
One of the main issues Douglas County commissioners cited in talking about their decision to leave Tri-County was that the mask mandate went against recommendations by the department’s executive director, Dr. John Douglas.
In a presentation on July 8, Dr. Douglas had recommended that Adams County and Aurora have a mask mandate, that Arapahoe County have a mask mandate that jurisdictions could opt out of and that Douglas County and its cities should be allowed to opt into a mandate.
“For Douglas County, because they had the lowest incidents, we said we think an opt in. If you don’t want to, do nothing. If you’d like to do part in it or you think it would help your local community, then you can actively opt in,” Dr. Douglas said.
During that meeting, however, Dr. Douglas said it might be better for continuity’s sake if all counties in the Tri-County purview follow the same guidelines for masks.
He made those recommendations based on the number of cases in each county, how testing is going, the demographics of who is getting sick, the number of hospitalizations as well as the number of deaths attributed to the new respiratory disease.
He liked the idea of allowing counties to opt in or opt out because it would require a discussion and vote among elected officials about what the best move is for them.
However, he said he sees only a minor difference between opting in and opting out since both can be done with a simple email to the health department.
He was surprised that the mask mandate became as politicized as it did since counties had the ability to opt out.
Despite not having a mask mandate, Tri-County data shows that about 75 to 80% of people in Douglas County are wearing masks. Still, they would like that number to be higher to limit the possibility of community spread of COVID-19.
“Honestly, this pandemic has gotten surprisingly politicized. It’s no surprise that we are doing as bad as any developed country in the world given how politicized it has become,” Dr. Douglas said. “Public health has been I think, frankly, just pathetically unfairly attacked as they try to deal with the epidemic whether it’s Dr. Fauci or local health departments.”
As for Douglas County choosing to leave Tri-County health, there are still a lot of unknowns. The entire process will end up taking about a year to complete.
During the hearing Tuesday, commissioners pointed out how much the area has changed and grown since joining the health department in 1965.
The population of the area back then was 4,800 residents. These days, the population is more than 370,000 people. Dr. Douglas understands and supports Douglas County’s consideration to leave the health department but thinks right now, during a pandemic, is not great timing.
“The timing isn’t great but I think the general premise is understandable,” he said. “We may be at a time were it just makes more sense for Douglas County to be on its own.”
The commissioners are holding another meeting on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. along with Dr. John Douglas.