Bus passengers board at RTD bus at Civic Center Park in Denver on Oct. 2, 2020. The public transit line is requiring passengers to wear a face mask because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most Denver residents will be required to wear masks beginning Wednesday, city leaders announced Tuesday morning, less than a day after three other counties in the metro instituted a similar requirement.

The order requires everyone 2 years of age and older be masked in public indoor settings through the beginning of January. To be exempt from the masking requirements, businesses can institute a program to check vaccine status at the door. At least 95% of people in those venues at any time, including staff, must be vaccinated.

Masks haven't been required in Denver since the spring, when vaccinations were flowing steadily, cases were largely trending downward, and there was optimism that the pandemic was subsiding. But the emergence of the delta variant, coupled with other pressures facing hospitals, has led to a steady spiraling of the pandemic situation in Colorado over the past two months. City health leaders had asked Gov. Jared Polis earlier this month to institute a requirement on a statewide basis, warning that a patchwork system would be insufficient. The governor has thus far shown no interest in doing so.

Though COVID-19 is surging at levels unseen in a year, the move back toward masks, which will now be in place in Denver, Adams, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties, is aimed at alleviating a piece of the overall hospital capacity crisis. The crush is a mixture of COVID-19 patients, staffing shortages and an influx of more standard medical emergencies. Hospitals in the metro area were diverting patients in October far more frequently than at any previous point in the pandemic, and as of Tuesday morning, both intensive and acute care bed capacity had averaged 94% occupancy over the past seven days.

The mask orders have been couched, in Denver and elsewhere, as a way to both help hospitals and keep businesses open. Lexi Nolen, the deputy director of Boulder County Public Health, said her county's order was intended to avoid lockdown measures, among other, more restrictive mitigation strategies. 

On Monday evening, the boards of health representing Adams, Arapahoe and Jefferson counties all voted to institute indoor mask orders for everyone but very young children. Both orders also give businesses the ability to establish a vaccine passport system and allow fully inoculated patrons to go maskless. 

The wave of moves in Denver — largely taken in lockstep to ensure regional uniformity — comes after Polis has repeatedly shown no interest in establishing a statewide masking order of his own. Representatives from nearly every metro health agency, along with a majority of public health departments statewide, have all called on him to do so. 

But health officials elsewhere Monday night said time was running out. Dawn Comstock, the executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, said residents were dying each day; Jefferson County has averaged one COVID-19 death per day since mid-July. Lane Drager, who sits on the Jefferson County board, said he was concerned the mask order was already coming too late.

McDonald said Friday that it had become clear Polis wouldn't step in and that metro agencies were going to move forward before Thanksgiving. Public health officials across the state have voiced concern that the imminent holiday season, coupled with the typical rise in flu infections that winter brings, may further exacerbate the COVID-19 and hospitalization crisis.

Data presented Monday night to the Jefferson County Board of Health indicated local hospitalizations had gone down in Boulder and Larimer counties after mask orders were enacted there, while local patients from Weld County — which has no such mandate — remain among the highest in the state. 

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