Ouray County commissioners late this afternoon unanimously approved a public health order requiring that masks be worn inside most businesses in the county and all government buildings.
The commissioners gathered as the board of health for an emergency meeting to adopt the order, pushed by the thousands of tourists visiting the county this holiday weekend and a recent uptick in new coronavirus cases in the county. Some business owners have also expressed concern about confrontations with visitors who refuse the follow the businesses’ rules about wearing masks.
The order, which took effect immediately and 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 workspace 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.
Commissioner John Peters said he fielded several calls today 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, according to Dr. Drew Yeowell, the county’s emergency medical director, research shows “some evidence” that covering the nose and mouth when around other people reduces the rate of virus infection through droplet spread by as much as 33 percent.
The order also says Ouray County Public Health Medical Director Dr. Joel Gates 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 spread happening through the county.
Viner said the emergency meeting was appropriate given the current circumstances, noting the county is “perilously close” to losing its variance that allows restaurants to have 50 percent occupancy. That variance is dependent on the county not exceeding five new cases of COVID-19 in a two-week period. County health officials announced earlier this morning that a woman in her 50s tested positive for coronavirus, the third case in the county in the last two weeks.
County officials said they plan to notify the public about the mandate by distributing flyers and posters to businesses and placing variable message boards on local roads.
The board of health heard from only one opponent of the mandate during this afternoon’s hourlong meeting. 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 planned to enforce the order, saying she had no plans to get into confrontations with her customers this weekend. 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.
Don Batchelder, the chairman of the board of county commissioners, closed the meeting by saying 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.