Summit County to implement mask mandate

The new measure comes in the wake of skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, which public health experts say is due to the omicron variant

Shoppers wear masks Aug. 10 at City Market in Breckenridge. Summit County’s newest mask mandate will be in place starting Thursday, Dec. 30. The mandate is for all indoor public spaces.
Tripp Fay/For the Summit Daily News

As of Thursday, Dec. 30, Summit County will once again have a mask mandate.

Due to skyrocketing COVID-19 case numbers, an emergency Summit County Board of Health meeting was held Wednesday, Dec. 29, to discuss a new recommendation from Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland. During that meeting, Assistant County Manager Sarah Vaine told the board that Wineland recommended a mask mandate in public indoor spaces.

According to the county’s website, the incidence rate over the past seven days was 1,828 cases per 100,000 people. The state’s incidence rate for Summit County, which is reported as more than 20,000 cases per 100,000 people, is since the beginning of the pandemic, meaning about 20% of residents have tested positive for the virus since March 2020.

Vaine kicked off the meeting in Wineland’s absence — she was reportedly on a call with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — and listed the reasons for why the county had been slow to implement such a measure thus far.

To start, Vaine noted that most exposures are coming from large, indoor gatherings. While masks are an effective tool against the virus, limiting indoor events has a bigger impact in slowing case rates. Vaine also pointed to other counties, such as Pitkin, that have had mask mandates in place for months while simultaneously reporting high case rates.

Vaine further pointed out that a mask mandate is enforced by front-facing staff, such as employees of retail shops, restaurants and bars. These are often the individuals who have to ask customers to wear a mask, and it’s these staff members who face the brunt of criticism and frustrations.

Vaine said it’s this feedback and concern that has acted as a primary factor for not reinstating a mask mandate thus far.

Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue said that over the past week, she’s gotten lots of feedback from community members both in support of and against a mask mandate. While she said she’s sympathetic to the extra burden a mask mandate would place on front-facing staff, she is still in support because of the surge in cases.

“Summit County and other resort communities are frequently ahead of the bell curve. … What that means is, I think, that likely in a week to 10 days, we will see the same kinds of staffing shortages we’re seeing in Summit County throughout the state,” Pogue said. “That means that while we are currently enjoying some capacity in our hospital, while we are currently enjoying some extra testing capacity that other communities may not be getting, it is likely we’re not going to see that in a week or 10 days out.”

Vaine noted that the county currently has three testing sites supplied by the Colorado Department of Public Health and that Wineland is advocating for more resources. It was noted during the meeting that wait times for a test were as long as three hours.

During the meeting, Vaine confirmed the county’s hospital capacity isn’t of concern. She said St. Anthony Summit Hospital does not have a single patient with COVID-19 but that the alarmingly fast rise in cases coupled with how much of the community’s workforce must quarantine is enough to worry public health leaders.

“When we set that, we also didn’t understand how quickly omicron would spread,” Vaine said about the county setting hospital capacity as a determining factor in implementing restrictions. “And so when we see the number of shortages of staff and the rapid spread of the virus — even though it doesn’t seem to be, at this point, as deadly or cause as critical illness as delta did — it’s still wiping out workforce in record numbers, and that’s really important to all of us,” Vaine said.

It’s because of this that Summit County Commissioner Elisabeth Lawrence said she was supportive of a mandate. She said the measure is meant to protect locals, some of whom have said they have tried to avoid grocery stores by ordering through curbside pickup. But because of staffing issues, this service isn’t offered, and when they go to the store, many customers are not masked.

“To me, it’s just a really commonsense approach and something we need to take to help mitigate this, even if it’s minuscule in what it does,” Lawrence said. “It also provides a level of comfort for our locals.”

Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard was in agreement with Lawrence and Pogue, and he noted that he supports public health measures that support businesses, and right now, those are measures that protect staff.

“This will allow for consistent messaging across the county,” Blanchard said. “We’ve seen some businesses that have taken on themselves by the recommendation of public health to implement mask restrictions within their own businesses, and this will allow for some consistent messaging, especially for our visitors who want to do the right thing.”

The new mandate takes effect Thursday, Dec. 30, and is only applied to public indoor spaces. Lawrence said the board would likely reconvene next week to discuss how long it’ll be in place. Vaine said the county would also have resources on its website regarding signage for businesses.

There is currently no discussion of capacity restrictions or other measures.

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