Mandate in place as tourists surge, infections inch up
After weeks of asking that people wear masks and fielding reports of conflicts between visitors and business owners who require face coverings, Ouray County has adopted a mandatory mask ordinance.
The county has become the latest in Colorado to require people to wear masks in public, after health officials and government leaders pushed for a mandate in light of a surge in tourists from states experiencing a spike in new coronavirus cases and a recent uptick in regional infections.
Acting as the board of health on July 3, Ouray County commissioners unanimously approved a public health order mandating that masks be worn inside most businesses and all government buildings. The vote came at the outset of the Fourth of July holiday weekend — traditionally the busiest weekend for tourism in the county — and in light of some business owners’ confrontations with visitors who refused to follow the businesses’ rules about wearing masks.
The order, which is in place until at least Aug. 1, requires everybody to wear a face covering when entering, waiting in line to enter, or while inside “any place of business or facility engaged in any sales or other transactions of any kind to the general public and any place that offers services, facilities, privileges, or advantages to the general public, including any outside courtyard, patio, seating, waiting or parking area associated with the place of business or place of service in which any kind of delivery, pick up or other service is provided.” The order also requires face coverings in any building or indoor facility owned or operated by the county, town of Ridgway and city of Ouray.
There are several exceptions to the order, including restaurant customers who are seated and eating or drinking; people working in businesses who don’t come into contact with the public and don’t share work space with other people who aren’t in their household; children age 3 or younger; and people who can’t wear face coverings due to an existing health condition or disability.
Violators of the order could face a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months in jail, though county officials made it clear they will seek voluntary compliance with the order prior to issuing any citations or taking legal action.
Officials have pushed out posters and fliers to businesses and set up variable message boards along local roadways to spread the message about the mandate.
Ouray County joined other counties, including neighboring San Juan County, in enacting orders requiring people to wear face coverings in public. At this time, there is no statewide mandate. Though the city of Ouray and the town of Ridgway both adopted resolutions encouraging masks to be worn, they stopped short of requiring them, and some councilors lobbied for the county to adopt a wider, more comprehensive order to include both communities.
Commissioner John Peters said he fielded several calls July 3 from citizens concerned the county would be overstepping its authority by adopting a mandatory order: He said some of them also claimed the science regarding the benefits of wearing a mask is contradictory. He asked whether the order was strong enough to avoid a lawsuit.
County Attorney Carol Viner said she was confident the county would not be sued.
“I feel like this is very defendable,” she said. “It’s reasonable, and given what’s going on, I would have no problem defending this in court.”
The order indicates that droplet spread of saliva is a “key transmission route” for COVID-19, and that, according to Dr. Drew Yeowell, the county’s emergency medical services director, research shows covering the nose and mouth when around other people reduces the rate of infection through droplet spread by as much as 33 percent.
The order also notes that Dr. Joel Gates, Ouray County Public Health’s medical officer, believes a face-covering order for the county is appropriate when social distancing isn’t achievable, given the surge in visitors to the county and the spread happening through the county.
Viner said the July 3 emergency meeting was appropriate given the current circumstances, noting the county is “perilously close” to losing its variance that allows restaurants to have 5o percent occupancy with up to too diners, double the amount allowed by the statewide rules. That variance is dependent on the county not exceeding five new cases of COVID-19 in a twoweek period. County health officials announced earlier in the day July 3 that a woman in her 5os tested positive for coronavirus, the third case in the county in the last two weeks.
The board of health heard from only one opponent of the mandate during the hourlong meeting on July 3. Reading from a statement, resident Christel Pizzarusso claimed the county didn’t have the right to enforce the order. “It is only a just government when all the power is derived from the people,” she said.
True Grit Cafe owner Tammee Tuttle asked how officials intended to enforce the order, saying she had no plans to get into confrontations with her customers. Public Health Director Tanner Kingery encouraged her to contact law enforcement if a customer is asked to wear a mask and refuses, noting at that point the person is trespassing.
The July 3 meeting came one day after county commissioners, Ouray city councilors and Ridgway town councilors met in a joint session to discuss the merits of a mandatory order.
‘This needs to come from public health and it needs to come tomorrow,” said Ouray Mayor Pro Tem John Wood, who estimated there are more Texans in Ouray than local residents at this time. ‘We need to protect our community from all that ingress.”
Texas has seen a spike in coronavirus cases recently and last week adopted a mandatory mask rule for counties with more than zo cases of the virus.
Though some officials had previously advocated for an educational approach to face coverings, favoring a requested but not required stance, they said it’s time to step in and make it an expectation now, especially as visitation increases.
"A mandatory mask order at of the summer is important,” said Commissioner Ben Tisdel.
Ridgway Town Councilor Tessa Cheek said keeping the message simple is key.
“Clarity, consistency, science. Masking is effective,” she said. “Let’s not confuse everyone by having something in Ridgway and something different in Ouray.”
Don Batchelder, chairman of the board of county commissioners, said the board understood the order could create some issues and that commissioners and other elected officials want to know what the reaction is to it.
“This is a public health issue, and the elected officials are very concerned about public health and the potential trends we may see,” he said.
Officials also asked law enforcement leaders to weigh in on the mask debate, and they cautioned that an order requiring masks to be worn outdoors, in public, could be tricky to enforce due to rules requiring officers to have reasonable suspicion to contact individuals. Some individuals are not able to wear masks for medical reasons, and that complicates matters, they cautioned.
Ouray Police Chief Jeff Wood advocated for continuing with requesting masks, not requiring them, and said his department would continue to support businesses with customers they had problems with or those who became belligerent or combative. Business owners have the right to refuse entry to customers who don’t wear masks if they choose, just as they can refuse service to those without shirts or shoes.
Wood also said he doesn’t have the resources, and neither do the other law enforcement agencies, to police mask-wearing.
“We’re responding to calls from businesses and we’ll aid them in the issues that arise from that, but you knew, we’re going to try more of an educational route,” Ridgway Town Marshal Shane Schmalz said. Law enforcement can’t initiate contact with people over mask-wearing “without some probable cause or reasonable suspicion that they’re doing something” he said.
“This is a public health order, so really the compliance and enforcement of it falls on the Public Health Department. So we assist if it turns into a criminal matter, but other than that, we don’t do a lot of the enforcement of the order.”
“What we’re not going to be doing is proactively walking the streets and inquiring and demanding of people why they don’t have a mask on,” Wood said. “It would be an overreach of our authority.” He said he’s discussed the order with other law enforcement agencies on the Front Range and Western Slope, which are “all pretty much on the same page.”
In addition to responding to to calls from businesses, officers could get involved if people report that someone who isn’t wearing a mask is deliberately antagonizing them, Wood said, depending on the situation.
Ouray County Sheriff-elect Justin Perry and Ridgway Town Marshal Shane Schmalz also voiced concerns about enforcement, but Schmalz said he was in favor of a proposal to have mask “ambassadors” in communities to help educate and encourage compliance. Perry said law enforcement should only be involved as a last resort, as their presence itself brings a perception of force.
Wood said he is also in support of using “ambassadors” to educate people about the ordinance, “as long as that person is not taking a confrontational tone.” He’s wary of “self-ordained mask enforcers,” which he thinks would “add to the friction, and that’s what I’m trying to stop.” But if people were vetted and assigned to hand out masks or information to people who aren’t wearing them, “that would be great, especially because it wouldn’t be from a uniformed officer.”
Others argued the mask order is necessary to protect workers in stores and restaurants who are exposed to those who refuse to wear masks, as well as residents who have been wary to enter public places due to others not wearing masks.
“The flip side of, ‘I can’t wear a mask,’ is, ‘I need everyone else to wear a mask so that I’m protected,’” said Ridgway Town Councilor Beth Lakin. ‘We have residents that haven’t been able to go out at all because they’re high-risk.”
“Since we don’t know if people are carrying it, let’s mandate some protection to mandate that those who may be carrying it don’t pass on to other people,” said Ethan Funk, Ouray city councilor.
Ultimately the officials agreed to move forward with the order.
Though Ouray County Public Health Director Tanner Kingery has the ability to enact public health orders, Viner said she wanted the commissioners to adopt it.
"This is an area that has been fraught with litigation, so I would prefer that the board of health approve this,” she said. ‘You guys need to be the ones that take the fall, not Tanner, for passing this.”
"This is it,” Ridgway Mayor John Clark said. “If we don’t do something now, a week from now we could be screwed.”