Amid a national rise in COVID-19 cases, Colorado is the latest Mountain West state to ease its mask mandate.
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis said in a statement issued April 2 that the loosening of a mask order is “a step toward the light at the end of the tunnel.” It eases restrictions for Colorado counties with low transmission rates. The change comes as the state opens up vaccinations to all people over 16.
Polis’s announcement puts the state closer in line with Republican-led Montana and Wyoming, where mask-wearing has been deeply politicized. Governors in those states lifted mask mandates in February and March, respectively.
In Idaho, another state where mask-wearing is particularly polarizing, Gov. Brad Little never enacted a mandate. And in Utah, a mask directive is slated to end April 10 per legislation nicknamed “the endgame bill” that Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law in March.
Meanwhile, Democratic governors in New Mexico and Nevada don't appear to have plans to ease their mask directives anytime soon.
Per Nevada’s pandemic plan, a reduction in public health measures is set for May 1, but “the statewide mask mandate will remain in place,” Meghin Delaney, communications director for Gov. Steve Sisolak, told the Mountain West News Bureau.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her state’s directive will be around for a while. “Here’s what won’t change: Absolute mask mandates, mandates for social distancing, making sure that businesses go through a safe-certified (process),” Lujan Grisham told The Washington Post in March.
Epidemiologist Melissa Marx at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says states like Nevada and New Mexico are making the right call.
“I think people are feeling like we've reached the end of the pandemic. And it does feel that way. But unfortunately, with new cases comes the opportunity for people to be hospitalized and we do see an uptick in hospitalizations in many places,” Marx said.
She followed that with a warning that harks back to dire times earlier in the pandemic: An increase in hospitalizations could result in more people dying from the novel coronavirus.
The surge in new cases, Marx said, is likely due to new variants of the virus that are more contagious and in some cases more deadly. She laments that wearing masks remains a politically charged debate.
“This is going to be a lesson for the ages on how important transparent and honest communication and non-politicized conversation is to control a pandemic. And it's going to be lesson number one for politicians and public health experts,” she said.
Marx is working with communications experts who "continue to try to undo the damage" wrought by the politicization of health measures like mask-wearing. In some ways, she worries it is too late "to undo this unfortunate coupling of politics and masks.”
A recent study found that the tendency to wear a mask was notably lower in counties that strongly supported former President Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election.
Marx urges skeptics to look at the science behind face masks that show they reduce COVID-19 transmission rates. She says everyone should mask up until at least 70% of people are vaccinated, a metric that experts say will likely yield herd immunity. Right now about 19% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
Even as more people gain access to the vaccine, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Wolensky issued an emotional plea last week for people to “hold on a little while longer” by following measures like wearing masks. On the heels of her words, President Joe Biden also urged people to stay the course and for states and cities to reissue mask mandates.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.