Aurora council members decry new Tri-County mask mandate as inequitable for a city split between three counties

A group of Aurora city council members — both in power and incoming — penned a letter to the city manager on Tuesday asking that Aurora not use any city resources to enforce a newly issued mask mandate from the Tri-County Health Department that goes into effect Wednesday.

The letter’s central message highlights the untenable position Colorado’s third-largest city finds itself in with public health matters and an ongoing pandemic as Tri-County comes apart.

Aurora straddles Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties and was fully served by Tri-County until September, when Douglas County pulled out of the agency to form its own health department over a disagreement it had with Tri-County’s decision to issue a mask requirement in schools.

“The decision of the Douglas County board of county commissioners to leave Tri-County Health Department has placed the city of Aurora in a situation where the new mandate will not evenly apply to all our city’s residents,” the letter states. “To ensure a uniform policy of enforcement from the city, we strongly encourage Aurora Code Enforcement and Tax and Licensing to only enforce rules set by the state as it relates to mask mandates.”

Colorado has no statewide mask mandate.

The letter to City Manager Jim Twombly was signed by Mayor Mike Coffman, Councilman Curtis Gardner and Councilwoman Francoise Bergan, along with three recently elected candidates who take office next month.

“We should have a consistent enforcement approach in the city,” Gardner said in an interview Tuesday.

Acknowledging that just a sliver of Aurora’s population of nearly 400,000 lives in Douglas County — fewer than 3,000 residents and virtually no businesses that would be subject to Tri-County’s order — Gardner said he worries that diverging mask policies between Arapahoe and Douglas counties will hurt businesses in the southern part of the city.

Douglas County has no mask mandate, except for schools.

“This is not anti-mask,” said Gardner, who said he is vaccinated and boosted and wears a mask willingly. “This is ensuring we have a level playing field and that we’re not creating an incentive for our residents to go somewhere else for their shopping.”

Councilwoman Alison Coombs agrees with Gardner on the need to have a consistent citywide mask policy for Aurora — she just thinks that policy should require the universal use of masks in public indoor spaces rather than making it optional.

“We shouldn’t be leaning into the governor’s decision not to implement a mask mandate,” she said. “It’s disappointing my colleagues and future colleagues don’t recognize the risks (from the coronavirus) and the protective functions of masks.”

Statewide, COVID-19 hospitalizations rose to 1,576 on Tuesday afternoon, with 95% of intensive care unit beds in use. Close to half of hospitals reporting to the state — 46% — said they expected to be short-staffed in the next week.

COVID-19 deaths continued to rise in Colorado last week, reaching levels seen at the worst point of April 2020 in the first week of November. More than 9,200 Coloradans have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic started.

“The COVID numbers currently are a statewide issue,” Coombs said. “We’re not a unique hot spot in the state.”

She put the ultimate blame for Aurora’s problems on Douglas County, whose decision to go its own way left the city in the lurch.

“We’ve allowed the extremists in Douglas County to hijack our public health conversation,” Coombs said.

In a statement Tuesday, the city said it needed time to review the new mask order with its legal counsel before saying more. Tri-County spokeswoman Becky O’Guin said her agency “can certainly understand the frustration about different rules across Aurora’s three counties.”

“The good news is that the Douglas County part of Aurora is residential and not subject to this order, which applies only to public indoor spaces,” she said. “While Tri-County has appreciated collaboration with cities such as Aurora in enforcement of past public health orders and would do so in the current situation as well, this sort of collaboration is not a requirement for our city partners, and we expect that we will largely be enforcing the order through education and in response to complaints.”

Tri-County’s mask order is in effect until Jan. 2.

Steve Sundberg, who owns the Legends of Aurora Sports Grill and won a seat on the Aurora City Council on Nov. 2, said he would like to see masks remain optional in the city. He was one of the signatories on Tuesday’s letter.

“It’s burdensome and difficult to work in this environment when it’s difficult to get oxygen when you’re literally running around all the time,” he said of his employees at his restaurant. “People are over it — if the vaccines work so well, why the mask mandate again?”

Kevin Hougen, president and CEO of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce, said the new mask order for Arapahoe and Adams counties complicates matters for his 800 member businesses in Aurora.

“Our brick-and-mortar businesses are really going to suffer,” he said, fearing that even more consumers will turn to e-commerce and delivery to avoid having to wear a mask in public spaces. “You can see why there is so much confusion and anger with people trying to hang in there with their businesses for the last two years.”

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