As COVID-19 cases continue to rise and Southwest Colorado’s health care systems appear to be maxing out, the Durango City Council on Monday adopted stricter regulations to enforce the mandatory mask order.
The question of what agency should take the lead on enforcing the mask requirement has been up in the air since the pandemic began earlier this year. Masks must be worn in all indoor places and outdoors where social distancing can’t be maintained.
While San Juan Basin Public Health, La Plata County’s local health department, has an avenue to enforce the state public health order, the agency has said it does not have the resources to take the lead on enforcement.
Instead, in recent weeks, the city of Durango has considered whether it should create a new local law that requires masks, which would provide the city and Durango Police Department with a more direct way to enforce face coverings.
City councilors Monday voted 4 to 1 to adopt the emergency ordinance, with Councilor Kim Baxter in opposition. Baxter said she is supportive of wearing masks, but does not believe creating a new law would ensure compliance.
Exceptions to the mask ordinance include those in the act of eating or drinking, people at work who do not come into contact with the public or coworkers, children younger than 10 and people with medical exemptions.
Business owners are required to make sure their employees are properly wearing masks, according to the ordinance.
City officials said education and outreach will be the first step taken for those not adhering to the mask requirement.
But, if the person or business continues to break the ordinance, they could be subject to a fine of $50 for a first offense, $250 for a second offense and $500 for a third and subsequent offenses.
The ordinance also gives authority to the Durango Local Licensing Authority to revoke a liquor license if an establishment is not following the mask ordinance.
If a person refuses to wear a mask and also refuses to leave the business, the owner or manager can report that person for trespassing.
“It says we’re serious about enforcement in our community,” said City Councilor Dean Brookie. “Otherwise, we’re going to put stress on our businesses, our medical community and front-line services.”
Nearly everyone who spoke during almost two hours of public comment spoke out against the mask ordinance.
Many people questioned the seriousness of COVID-19 and the pandemic. Other people said masks are ineffective at slowing the spread of the virus.
“I am a person who has never worn a mask,” said Jenny Diehl. “According to everyone out there, I should be dead.”
Philip Wortman said the government is trying to control people’s lives through public health orders issued in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
“We will eventually overcome all the silliness going on here,” Wortman said. “You don’t need to be a needless sheep being led to the slaughter.”
Lindsey McElroy said the pandemic is a “fear-driving, freedom-sucking situation.”
“My toddler will not grow up watching people wear masks,” she said.
Heather Drake echoed sentiments that masks don’t work.
“It’s hogwash,” she said. “We are not wearing masks for other people. Leave us alone.”
The few people who spoke in support of the mask ordinance said it is a necessary measure as cases surge in La Plata County.
As of Monday, there were 1,132 positive cases, with the vast majority of that total coming in the past few weeks. And, according to state data, all 25 ICU beds in Southwest Colorado are full.
“Think of mask wearing as more of a community service and a show of respect for your fellow citizens,” said Jeff Hickcox.
Johnathan Cannon, who lives in Bayfield, said it’s a tricky spot to put the onus on business owners to enforce the ordinance, and the responsibility should instead fall on the city.
“We do need to create preventative measures, and the most effective and safe ones can be masks,” he said. “The only ways masks are effective is if everyone is wearing one.”
Durango’s new mask ordinance takes effect immediately and lasts for 60 days, though it could be extended.
“I think we are in a critical period and we need to do everything within our power,” said City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy.
Liane Jollon, executive director of SJBPH, submitted written comments to the City Council in favor of the new ordinance.
“It (mask wearing) is one of the best tools that we currently have available (along with social distancing, washing hands, etc.) to (slow) the spread of COVID-19,” Jollon wrote.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets that travel in the air when someone coughs, sneezes or talks.
Masks, the CDC says, are simple barriers to prevent the spread of those droplets from person to person.
For a variety of reasons, however, mask wearing has become a political issue for some.
Baxter said she supports mask wearing, but felt like many of the stipulations in the new ordinance are already in place, like being able to call police if someone is trespassing.
She said the new ordinance is likely to further divide the community.
“I’m not sure this ordinance is going to make that difference,” she said. “I think the community has to do it because they want to do it.”
A previous version of this story gave an incorrect fine amount for a second offense of the public health orders.
Ordinance - COVID enforcement
Poll: Do you support Durango’s stricter mask ordinance, which includes fines from $50 to $500 for violations?
Yes - 1954 - 49.94%
No - 1959 - 50.06%