Following a nearly four-hour-long meeting including dozens of public speakers, Douglas County voted to opt out of the latest public health order from Tri-County Health Department calling for students to wear masks at schools as a COVID-19 safety measure.
That move came two days after Douglas County School District leaders said they will require all students in preschool through sixth grade to wear masks when inside school buildings.
The three county commissioners unanimously approved an opt-out resolution during the Aug. 19 special business meeting.
“By opting out of this public health order, we will be securing the blessings of liberty,” said Commissioner George Teal in the meeting.
The public health order from Tri-County Health, which provides public health services in Douglas, Adams and Arapahoe counties, was approved Aug. 17. It ordered that students in those counties ages 2 to 11 -- and staff members who work with them -- wear masks inside school.
Following a fall 2020 negotiation with Douglas County, Tri-County's public health orders, including this one, provide an option for counties to opt out.
For this order involving students, if a county opts out, it is then up to each school district and individual schools to decide if they will follow the public health order, according to Tri-County.
In Douglas County, public schools are run by an elected school board independent of county government.
An attorney representing the county said during the meeting that his interpretation of the order was that if the county chooses to opt out, no public health order will exist to be enforced in the county.
But Douglas County School District Superintendent Corey Wise has said the district must follow the health order, regardless of whether commissioners opt out.
In an Aug. 17 letter to the community, Wise cited district policy that states DCSD will follow the guidance of local and state public health agencies in responding to common communicable disease.
Colorado Community Media has asked the district for further clarification about how it interprets the health order in conjunction with district policy.
At the end of the county commissioners' meeting, Teal moved for the board to begin work on a resolution encouraging the school district to “join us in opting out of this public health order” and that motion was unanimously approved.
“Parents are in charge of their kids, period,” Commissioner Lora Thomas said in the meeting. “That is what is most important to me.”
The commissioners confirmed to Colorado Community Media that they planned to opt out of the order the day it was approved.
“My view is that my job is not to stand in your way to shackle your children with unreasonable restrictions but to empower you.” Commissioner Abe Laydon said during the meeting.
Emotion high among speakers
Nearly 50 people spoke in favor of the county’s resolution and about five spoke against it during the public hearing.
Among those who spoke during the meeting supporting the resolution were local leaders like state Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, and county sheriff candidate John Anderson, along with community members who identified themselves as parents, COVID-19 survivors and those who have lost loved ones to the disease.
“This is the civil rights issue of our time and history was not kind to those on the wrong side of the last civil rights movement and history shall not be kind to those on the wrong side of this one,” Roxborough resident Sean Benson said during the meeting.
More than once, residents speaking out against the mask mandate said “enough is enough,” in relation to the pandemic restrictions. Many spoke about their frustration with the many changes they’ve seen in public health recommendations and that they don’t believe masks are effective.
“My concern here is that the whittling away from our freedom has been happening for a while now, we all see it,” Sedalia resident Kristin Billings said. “Eventually this is going to get worse and worse if we can’t stand up for freedom now.”
Multiple speakers said that if DCSD follows through with its new mask requirement, they would either pull their children out or simply refuse to follow the rule.
Several speakers also mentioned a desire for Douglas County to form its own health department and leave Tri-County. The commissioners have been looking into this option for more than a year after they threatened to leave in July of 2020 before walking that decision back until at least the end of 2022.
“Get us out of Tri-County health … They don’t represent us anymore,” one speaker said to resounding applause from the audience.
Emotion was high in the room as several speakers broke down in tears during their testimony and multiple crowd memers shouted out support or frustration during the hearing.
Of the few speakers who spoke in favor of the mask mandate, most spoke about their concerns around the impacts of the irus, particularly the highly-contagious delta variant, on children.
“I’m in favor of choice in many ways, but not when someone's choice affects other people and that's what's at stake here,” said Highlands Ranch resident John DiCarlo.
A full room
Minutes before the meeting was set to begin, the hearing room became packed with members of the public. County staff worked to open up an overflow area and provide additional seating before the meeting began.
“We had no idea there would be so many people so we are working to get some more room in the back,” Thomas said.
As the second speaker voiced support of the commissioners’ resolution, the crowd began cheering during the remarks. Thomas, currently serving as the chair, asked the crowd not to clap or cheer during the public testimony. In response, Laydon asked her to withdraw that rule.
“As a point of personal privilege I’m going to ask the chair to walk back that decision. I think all of these people took their time out of their day to be here and as one commissioner, I’m OK with you expressing yourself however you’d like,” he said.
His comments were met with applause from the crowd and shouts of “thank you.”
Throughout the rest of the meeting, attendees cheered in support of those who spoke in favor of the resolution and shouted out at the few speakers who spoke against it.
During an Aug. 18 Laydon disclosed that he is vaccinated and said that he recommends others also receive the inoculation.
Reporter Jessica Gibbs contributed to this story.
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