DENVER — During a special meeting Monday afternoon, the Tri-County Health Department board voted to require masks for everyone 2 and up in indoor school and child care settings and rescinded the ability for individual counties to opt out of the public health order.
The board of health voted 5-3 on two motions, first to rescind the opt-out order and then to put in place the new mask order.
The new order will go into effect on Sept. 1 and stay in effect until Dec. 31 unless it is amended, extended or rescinded. Health data and community conditions will be monitored daily while the order is in effect.
Dr. John Douglas, the executive director of TCHD, provided a presentation prior to the votes addressing concerns about the delta variant and the growing COVID-19 case numbers among kids. Data based on Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties show kids in the age group of 6-11 are seeing the biggest jump in COVID-19 cases compared to any other age group.
Douglas also shared data that showed outbreaks have increased since school started this year. Over the first 26 days of August, there were 39 outbreaks reported in the three counties, and five more were confirmed Monday.
Douglas and several board members voiced concerns about keeping kids in schools and said masks would help limit the amount of disruptions to in-person learning.
Kevin Bracken, who was appointed as an interim member Monday by Douglas County commissioners, voted against the motion, saying kids are the least at risk but are the ones being punished. Dr. Linda Fielding expressed concerns about bureaucratic overreach and the board choosing to go against the will of the people. Dr. Thomas Fawell said while he believes in masking, he didn’t believe the data was to the point where universal masking was necessary.
Tri-County previously voted to put a mask mandate in place for kids ages 2-11 on Aug. 18, which went into effect Aug. 23.
Earlier Monday, Arapahoe County commissioners discussed possibly opting out of the former Tri-County order. A meeting was scheduled for Tuesday morning on a possible action item on opting out of the order.
Most of the commissioners generally said they supported masking in school, but some said there should be control over those decisions at the school-district level – especially surrounding the differences between urban and rural Arapahoe County.
But the commissioners agreed that they needed to see what the Tri-County board decided to do with its public health order before making a decision on how to proceed.
Following the announcement Monday, the Arapahoe County commissioners released the following statement:
"On Monday night, the Tri-County Health Department Board of Health rescinded the County’s ability to opt out of any public health order. Based on this action, the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners (Board) no longer has statutory authority to opt out or otherwise change the new order requiring masks in schools and childcare settings. As a result, our business meeting agenda for Tuesday, Aug. 31, has been amended to remove item 6C, which was to be a Board consideration of an opt out from the now-rescinded order. As with all County business meetings, there will be an open public comment period, and the meeting will be live streamed, as always, at this link."
Adams County commissioners chose to opt out of the public health order last week. The five Democratic commissioners said they all believed in masking, but some said they felt they didn’t have the authority to make health-related decisions. Others felt the TCHD should not have allowed the opt-out clause.
"Our board is unified in applauding the TCHD board for removing the opt out provision in the mask order and for rescinding and replacing the public health order," said Adams County Commission Board Chair Eva J. Henry.
Douglas County voted to opt out of the public health order two days after it was announced. However, Douglas County Schools chose to follow the order, requiring masks starting a week ago. Just after the Monday meeting, the Douglas County commissioners released the following statement:
"The Tri-County Health Department (TCHD) Board’s decision to rescind the opt-out provision from their policy during their meeting this afternoon unilaterally reversed our negotiated Nov. 10, 2020 agreement. This decision removed from the Board of County Commissioners the promised local control regarding the issuance of countywide public health orders, as orders are being developed and before they are issued."
That said, as we evaluate the impact of this policy change on our organization, we will continue as we have for the past many months. We will continue directing County staff to work with expert professionals and the Douglas County Public Health Advisory Committee to identify a public health agency framework that will honor the needs of Douglas County citizens."
Options include the establishment of an independent, local public health agency that provides or contracts for services. These options are being evaluated with the intent to notify TCHD on or before the end of this year regarding the future of how public health services will be provided for County residents, including our business community, in accordance with the Colorado Public Health Act of 2008, C.R.S. 25-1-501 et seq."
Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said Tuesday the commissioners were "exploring options to work respectfully with all parties to establish a process to get our own health department." Efforts by Douglas County to leave the Tri-County Health Department have been ongoing for years but intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic.