University of Colorado Boulder coronavirus researchers say it’s still too soon to lift the statewide mask mandate, even as Gov. Jared Polis announced Friday that 31 counties with the fewest COVID-19 restrictions will be largely exempt from the requirement to wear masks in indoor public spaces.
Polis has extended the mask mandate every 30 days since it was first implemented in July.
The modified mandate means that approximately 240,000 Coloradans living in counties at Level Green on the state’s coronavirus dial will no longer be required to wear masks indoors in public spaces starting Sunday. Exceptions include schools, child care centers, public-facing state government facilities, group care facilities, prisons, jails and certain health care settings.
The state also modified its coronavirus dial on March 24 to move 26 counties to Level Green. The dial change also removed all limits on the size of personal gatherings, allowed bars to reopen and expanded capacity for restaurants and gyms.
The mask mandate changes don’t apply to Boulder County, which is at Level Yellow, though Boulder County’s Board of Health on Friday approved removing outdoor requirements for mask-wearing.
BCPH has not yet had discussions about when it may lift indoor mask requirements, said spokesperson Angela Simental.
CU Boulder researchers who have dedicated the past year to researching COVID-19 said the still-limited availability of vaccines, spread of more contagious coronavirus variants and a majority of the population still being unvaccinated makes lifting the mandate “a very bad idea.”
“It is inviting an increase of cases, which again would lead to health consequences and potentially economic damage,” said Professor Jose-Luis Jimenez, who, along with Professor Shelly Miller, conducted research that showed coronavirus was airborne months before the concept was acknowledged by national and global public health agencies.
“The mask mandate indoors should only be removed when cases are very, very low,” Jimenez said.
Counties in level green must have fewer than 35 cases per 100,000 people or, for smaller counties, 10 or fewer cases in the last week.
“I think we need (masks) for at least another month,” Miller said. “It is still very difficult to find vaccine appointments, and not even 30% of the population is vaccinated yet. The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) director is very clear that this is not the time to remove mask mandates. I concur.”
Professor Daniel Larremore said while hospitalizations across the state are flat, they’re not low, and vaccines are still not as accessible as they could be. Larremore’s research has included the impact of rapid, frequent coronavirus testing and how vaccinating older people first will save lives.
“…it’s not a great time to take our hands off the wheel,” Larremore said. “We’re close to achieving high and enthusiastic vaccine coverage, plus warmer weather which is likely to decrease indoor transmission, so while I’m optimistic … I’d rather see the schools open, vaccines rolled out, and the masks on just a bit longer.”
President Joe Biden and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky have also issued public pleas for state officials to maintain mask mandates.
In a statement, Polis said the modified mask order is “a step towards the light at the end of the tunnel” and acknowledges counties with low transmission “and the great achievement they have made towards ending the pandemic.”
Polis also urged the public to continue wearing masks in indoor public settings and to practice social distancing.