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Opinion: A mask mandate at last 

click to enlarge El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said he won’t enforce the mask mandate. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder said he won’t enforce the mask mandate.

Give Jared Polis credit. In the end, he wasn’t a selfish bastard after all.

“Selfish bastard” is how Polis had described anti-maskers who, in the face of COVID-19, refuse to wear a mask because, you know, liberty.

The one flaw in Polis’ mask-wearing game — and for many of us, it was pretty much a fatal flaw — is that despite his nonstop evangelism on the topic, he had refused, against all reason, to issue a statewide mandate.

I’m not sure what had been holding Polis back. But, as it turned out, he couldn’t make the right move without having to humiliate himself first. That should be a sign to anyone who might have missed the blinking-red-lights warning that the situation in Colorado is growing increasingly serious.

Polis called the latest data “alarming.” The COVID-19 numbers have been steadily rising for four weeks, hospitalizations are rising, and while we aren’t anywhere near a crisis stage yet, what the medical people tell us is that if we don’t turn the numbers around, that’s where we could end up — like Arizona, like Florida, like California, like Texas. It can take only a matter of weeks. And Polis has now likened the state’s situation to being on a “knife’s edge,” which probably isn’t the most comfortable place to be.

It’s a simple enough matter to see how resurgent the virus has become — the country setting caseload records by the day, 75,600 on Friday — as states reopen for business. In a July 14 White House document obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, it says 18 states are in what it calls a “red zone,” meaning more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population. It also listed 11 states where test positivity exceeds 10 percent.

In either case, Colorado isn’t there yet, thanks, in part, to the fact that most people in Colorado do wear masks. But as Polis says, we have to do better and that a large part of the problem is a lack of national coordination. What he didn’t say was whether he should have issued the mandate earlier.
Polis made his announcement only a few days after insisting he wouldn’t, saying he didn’t think it would do much good and that, besides, people weren’t waiting around for the governor’s signature on a mandate to decide whether to wear masks.

In his explanation for changing his mind, he said he saw new studies on the efficacy of a mandate late in the week that moved him to change his mind. Did some of his medical team make sure he saw those studies before his next press briefing? I wouldn’t be surprised. And if I had to guess, I’d put his hesitation down to one of at least three possibilities, or maybe all at once:

One, the pressure from Democrats in the Legislature forced his hand. By the way, Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper have both said they support the move. Has anyone heard from Cory Gardner?

Two, Polis’ pesky libertarian streak, which, just as one example, had him on the wrong side last year of the anti-vaxxer debate, even though he’s a big-time pro-vaxxer.

Three, his understanding that strongly encouraging mask-wearing is one thing, but that mandating is another thing altogether and one that would certainly rile up the crazies.
And the crazies are riled. Predictably, sheriffs in Weld and El Paso counties said they wouldn’t enforce the law, although this time around they weren’t arguing with the premise — just their role in enforcing it. The El Paso County sheriff’s department said it would “erode the public trust” in law enforcement to, well, enforce the law. I’m not sure I understand that either, but I’m guessing it has something to do with, yeah, trying not to rile up the crazies.

As Polis put it, though, “Look, in Colorado, there’s no shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. Very simple.” And one of the reasons people had been asking for a mandate is to give state-certified support to those working in retail who have been, at minimum, verbally assaulted for politely asking people to wear a mask in his/her store. The videos are everywhere.

But then, of course, there are the state House crazies, led by none other than Minority Leader Patrick Neville, who had engaged Polis in a Twitter fight on masks even before the mandate. Neville says he has reduced lung capacity from his time in Iraq that prevents him from wearing a mask. And yet, a possible lung condition would have nothing to do with his hot-air, post-mandate attack on Polis, which went like this:

“Polis was giving in to mob rule,” that he was “on a power trip,” that the mandate was unconstitutional and that Neville had hired counsel to possibly sue Polis. The Colorado House GOP issued a statement from Neville. In a sign of sanity, though, former House GOP spokesman Justin Miller blasted the statement on Twitter, saying it “embarrasses” him. Owen Loftus, another former Colorado GOP spokesman, tweeted his agreement with Miller.

According to every poll, the public overwhelmingly supports wearing masks. According to the latest Washington Post/ABC News poll, 57 percent say they always wear masks around people outside the home. Another 23 percent says most of the time. But Neville — whose stance, let’s agree, may not enhance the GOP’s already-slim chances of regaining the House — isn’t alone.

He can find an ally in Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who finally has come around to encouraging mask-wearing but won’t issue a mandate. In fact, he is suing the Atlanta mayor and city council for putting a mandate in place in the state’s largest city. It just so happens that the Democratic mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, a possible Biden VP candidate, has tested positive for the virus along with her husband and son.

When Polis announced his mandate, he wisely brought along Denver’s Democratic mayor, Michael Hancock, and Aurora’s Republican mayor, Mike Coffman, for support.

More than half the states — although not Florida or Arizona, the nation’s leading hotspots — have mask mandates in place. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Journal of the American Medical Association, “I think if we could get everybody to wear a mask right now I think in four, six, eight weeks we could bring this epidemic under control.” We haven’t seen much of Redfield of late, and we haven’t seen much of Dr. Tony Fauci, the person most Americans trust on this issue.

And yet, Walmart is now requiring customers to wear masks. Target and CVS are in. And now more than half the states have mandates. On the same day Polis made his announcement, so did governors from Alabama, Arkansas and Montana. Yes, Alabama — that’s how they roll now, hoping Roll Tide will be back soon as the college football season is also in jeopardy.

So, yes, Colorado is finally in. The logic makes perfect sense. The resurgent virus is out of control in America, which badly trails every other rich country in combating COVID-19. And despite Donald Trump’s insistence to the contrary, masks need to be mandatory everywhere. And if mandating masks doesn’t work, the next moves will make wearing masks seem like, well, child’s play.

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at
coloradosun.com.

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