Though he’d previously been resistant to take such action, Governor Jared Polis announced Thursday he is issuing a statewide mask-wearing order effective at midnight that requires everyone 10 or older to wear a mask in public, indoor spaces. People who have a medical condition or disability preventing them from wearing a mask are exempted.

“The data increasingly shows that one of the powerful tools we as a state have done well on, but can do better on, is wearing masks,” he said a news conference. “At this point in time it’s the least bad option we have at our disposal.”

For months, Polis has been firm in his messaging that mask wearing is essential to save lives and to help Colorado suppress COVID-19. Recently, his tone grew more severe: In press conference on July 9, he told viewers to “wear a damn mask.” And in a Facebook post earlier this week, he called those who do not wear masks “selfish bastards.”

Despite that language, the governor held off until today to issue the executive order. Health officials and fellow Democrats were calling for it, but Polis offered a variety of reasons why he hadn’t issued such an order. As recently as last week, he stressed that because so many counties—about half of Colorado—already had mandates in place, it was not necessary. He also noted that the state has limited means of enforcement on such an order, and that residents should be wearing a mask regardless of a formal order.

What changed his mind, he said Thursday, were recent studies that show mask wearing is more prevalent in counties where mask mandates are in place. According to Colorado Department of Health and Environment research, 67 percent of Colorado residents wear masks in counties without mandates, where 83 percent of residents wear masks in counties that do have an official order.

Polis was joined by state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy, who presented data models showing that on its current trajectory, Colorado could exceed its ICU capacity by September and have a peak of COVID-19 cases occurring in October.

“Being on this path is certainly not where we want to be right now,” Herlihy said. “We are below the level of social distancing that we know is feasible to maintain the transmission of this virus.”

Herlihy also noted that a greater portion of new cases are being seen in children and people under the age of 40, and that out-of-state travelers from states such as Texas, Florida, and Arizona have led to the recent uptick of cases in Colorado.

As of July 15, there are 38,155 cases in Colorado, and 1,744 people with COVID-19 have died in the state.

“The data is beginning to be alarming,” Polis said. “I hope this is a wakeup call for people…Our lives depend on it and our economy depends on it.”

Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard
Jay Bouchard is a Denver-based writer and a former editor on 5280's digital team.