DENVER — Denver is joining other nearby counties in imposing a mask mandate in public places, a coordinated move that officials said Tuesday was needed to prevent the region’s hospital system from collapsing amid a surge in cases.
Starting Wednesday, everyone age 2 and over will have to wear a mask in indoor public places in Denver. However, echoing the approach taken by surrounding counties, businesses that can show that at least 95% of its customers and staffers are fully vaccinated will not have to require people to wear masks, Mayor Michael Hancock said.
Gov. Jared Polis said at a news conference Tuesday that he is not considering a state-wide mask mandate but that he supports the decisions of local health departments and county governments that have issued mandates and “have to function within the social license of the area that they represent.”
Polis added that he would worry about the state’s COVID-19 trends if the vaccination rate was 20 or 30 points lower. In Colorado, 81% of adults and 92% of those 65 and up are fully vaccinated, he said.
The health boards covering Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties in suburban Denver passed similar mandates Monday that will also take effect Wednesday. Boulder and Larimer counties have also issued mask mandates in the absence of a statewide mask order.
Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment, blamed the unvaccinated for the move, pointing out that 83% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 have not gotten vaccinated.
“Hospitals are filling up by those of you have chosen not to get vaccinated,” he said.
Capacity is so limited at the city’s public hospital, Denver Health, that its emergency room has been routinely diverting patients to other hospitals, CEO Robin Wittenstein said. Between treating more COVID-19 patients and people who delayed care during the height of the pandemic, hospital workers are exhausted and need help from the public.
“Our system is on the brink of collapse,” she said.
Citing hospital capacity concerns earlier this month, Denver area public health directors had urged Polis to issue a statewide order requiring people to have vaccine passports to enter places such as bars, restaurants, gyms and sporting events and require masks for the unvaccinated in public indoor settings.
While the state did not do so, the state health department issued an order requiring that people show proof of vaccination to attend indoor, unseated public events with more than 500 people in the Denver area.
Under an order issued Sunday by the state health department, venues that already require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test from patrons can continue accepting proof of a negative test through Dec. 1. After that, anyone wanting to attend events will have to show proof they are fully vaccinated through Dec. 31.
The Democratic governor said the state “to a certain extent” needs “to be ready to handle the unvaccinated filling our hospitals,” adding that it’s still their responsibility if they don’t take the extra precautions like getting vaccinated against COVID-19 to protect themselves.
“When it becomes a collective responsibility is when our hospitals are at capacity and other people aren’t able to get the surgeries or procedures that they need,” Polis said.