As the United States continues to lose the war against COVID-19, with more than a thousand people dying from it daily at the end of July, a war of a different sort is also going on – between advocates for wearing masks, and people who oppose that practice.
At press time, the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases had reached 108 in Montezuma County, with three fatalities. Masks and social distancing are the only ways known to slow the spread of the virus.
On July 16, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order mandating the wearing of masks in indoor public places. The 30-day order has exceptions for people who can’t wear masks for reasons such as asthma.
The order led to a tense exchange July 21 between Will Furse, district attorney for the 22nd Judicial District, and Montezuma County Administrator Shak Powers during the July 21 county commission meeting.
Furse came to ask the county to retract an email Powers sent to department heads on July 17 in which he essentially undermined the governor’s mandate.
In the email, which was obtained by radio station KSJD, Powers said, “There will be no internal disciplinary actions taken against County employees (that work under the prevue of the BOCC) who choose not to wear a facial covering. There will also be zero tolerance of harassment towards employees or customers who choose to wear or not wear their facial coverings.”
“I’m asking that the county retract its email sent on July 17th and remain silent on the subject of executive orders,” Furse said.
He said that as someone sworn to uphold the law and state and federal constitutions, he believes “the governor’s order was lawful and it passes constitutional muster.” He added, “It is not only lawful but it makes sense.”
Despite being known as a “free country,” the United States has many laws that infringe on freedom, Furse said. “We are prohibited from the act of burning, pursuant to a fire ban,” he noted. Restaurants have to follow health regulations and people can’t drink alcohol while driving. “I believe those types of policies have a far greater impact on our liberties than briefly wearing a mask while we are indoors,” he said.
Referring to the Navajo Nation, which has been devastated by the virus, as well as Arizona and parts of New Mexico, which are raging hot spots, Furse said, “Our friends to the south and in other parts of the country are suffering in ways unimaginable to us in Montezuma County. Let’s take steps to help the situation and not make it worse.”
He said one of his employees, who has an immuno-compromised partner and elderly parents, told Furse he doesn’t feel safe in the DA’s offices. “We have a responsibility to care for our flock,” Furse said.
While thanking the county for finding accommodations for his offices, Furse again asked it to simply “stay silent” on masks.
Powers has said that masks do help prevent the spread of the disease and that he will wear one. But he began asking Furse a series of questions aimed at showing that the DA’s staff was in little danger of contracting COVID-19 while at work.
“Which floor of the building is your department located in?” Powers asked. When Furse said the third, Powers continued, “Is anybody else on the third floor with you?”
Furse said the stairway is an open airway and his office also regularly receives visitors from other county departments.
Powers pointed out that Furse can require visitors to wear masks, and began asking questions about how the virus spreads.
“My point is that the virus is not going to defy gravity and make its way upstairs,” Powers said. “We have recirculated air in this building,”
Furse said, continuing that his staff has to meet visitors at the front door and that there is a lack of security for the DA’s office. “This email you sent on Friday adds insult to injury,” he said.
Powers replied, “You’ve been our district attorney almost eight full years now and this is the first time I’ve received an email or heard a speech that passionate in front of the commissioners. Where is this passion for the substance abuse and mental-health disorders we’ve been facing for the last seven and a half years?”
Commissioner Jim Candelaria, who has stepped in to end arguments during other meetings, interrupted. “We are way out into the weeds again,” he said.
He added, “This is exactly what is going on in our nation right now … this saddens me. …we need to get along.”
Candelaria and Furse agreed they would get together and talk about the issue.
Commissioner Larry Don Suckla, no fan of masks, later said it was a “non-issue” and the DA should not ask him to be silent.
At one point, Powers played a video of Polis commenting on protests over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. Polis said he understood why people felt the need to protest that.
But Powers said this was a contradiction. “When public health orders are allowed to be ignored because of political ideologies, the orders cease to happen,” Powers commented, adding, “I am not going to enforce on my employees a cluster of rules when the governor would not enforce the rules …”
Videos of protesters in Denver showed most wearing masks. However, they were clearly gathering in groups larger than 10, which the state has said should be the limit.
“Wearing a mask will reduce the virus but I don’t believe it’s okay for protesters to assemble and congregations not,” Powers said.
Montezuma County Public Health Department Director Bobbi Lock told the Four Corners Free Press that masks demonstrate empathy and concern for others. “It’s just really a matter of people caring about other people and respecting other people, that’s my thought,” she said.
Research into the coronavirus is still going on and much is still unknown, she noted. “It’s a novel virus,” she said. “We are learning as we go. We can’t guarantee the masks are the be-all, end-all. But the particles that spread the virus are aerosolized.”
The local community is fairly supportive of masks, she said.
“When I go food-shopping I see the majority of people wearing masks and the employees wearing them. I applaud businesses that are doing that. They care about their employees, customers and their businesses.“
The increase in cases nationwide and locally is partly attributable to the fact that people are traveling, she said. “People from Montezuma County are going places. Tourists come through here from other places.” Visitors can and do get tested locally, especially at free testings the health department and Southwest Health System offer. But a positive result from a visitor is not counted with the local numbers that are reported, Lock said. “There are more positives here than our numbers reflect,” she said.
Visitors who test positive are advised to quarantine and follow the rules, she said. “We work with those folks and educate them and do a contact tracing as well.”
The free tests are offered on the first and third Tuesdays of the month. The next event will take place in Mancos Aug. 4.
“I think it’s been very successful,” she said. “We’ve had people thank us left and right.” The events offer tests for anyone, whether or not they have symptoms.
The hospital also offers testing, though not free, from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. three days a week. Cedar Diagnostics also offers tests for folks with an appointment.
“We are not a hot spot,” Lock said, “but where we are situated with our borders we are sitting on the edge of a fault line. We are doing well but we cannot let our guard down. The whole thing can shift very quickly.”
The health of the community and the health of the economy are tied together, she said. “People think it’s one against the other, but they are inextricably tied.”