County expected to adopt emergency mask order

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Ouray County is expected to approve a public health order to require masks to be worn indoors and encouraging them to be worn outdoors if safe distancing isn't possible. Commissioners are expected to meet as the board of health in an emergency meeting at 4 p.m. Friday to adopt the order.

Elected officials from the county, city of Ouray and town of Ridgway met Thursday night in a joint session to discuss a mask requirement. Fears over increased visitation and decreased compliance with requests for tourists to wear masks in public places and businesses over the holiday weekend spurred the discussion.

Some elected officials asked the county to consider enacting the public health order, citing recent incidents between business owners and visitors as well as a need for a consistent expectation for masks across the community. One of the goals discussed was a way to empower local business owners and have consistent expectations to make it easier for them to require masks indoors.

Three county commissioners, three Ouray city councilors, and five Ridgway town councilors debated the idea of enacting a mask requirement for roughly 90 minutes and listened to medical professionals' recommendations before deciding to move forward with drafting the order. Ultimately, the order will be considered by the Ouray County Public Health Agency. Dr. Drew Yeowell, the county's emergency medical services director and an emergency room doctor at Montrose Memorial Hospital, and Dr. Joel Gates of Mountain Medical Center both advocated for a mask requirement in indoor places to limit transmission of the virus.

"This needs to come from public health and it needs to come tomorrow," said John Wood, Ouray city councilor, 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 adopted a mandatory mask rule for counties with more than 20 cases of the virus this week.

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 this point 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."

Officials debated whether a requirement for masks would be defensible against a lawsuit, as some have been filed against counties and states with mask requirements.

County Attorney Carol Viner cautioned the order would need adequate data to back up the reasons for implementation, and it couldn't be arbitrary or capricious.

Officials also asked law enforcement leaders to weigh in on the mask debate, and they cautioned an order requiring masks to be work outdoors, in public, could be tricky to enforce due to rules requiring them 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 requested 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.

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.

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."

Officials discussed using variable message boards to communicate the expectation to visitors as they enter town, to make sure they are aware of the new order.

Expediency was of the utmost concern on the eve of the Fourth of July weekend, traditionally a record-setting weekend for visitors to Ouray County.

"This is it," Clark said. "If we don’t do something now, a week from now we could be screwed."