Eagle County votes to end indoor mask mandate next week

New direction will ease confrontation with Cornerstone Christian School

Eagle County officials decided Thursday to drop an indoor mask mandate next week despite a high rate of incidence from the omicron variant of COVID-19.

The county commissioners, acting as the Board of Health, voted 3-0 to allow an existing mask mandate in public indoor spaces to expire Jan. 17 for adults and high school-aged kids. The mask mandate will expire for children age 3 through eighth grade on Jan. 21.

The Board of Health approved the most recent indoor mask mandate Dec. 17 through a public health order.

“I’m very excited about being able to get out of the public health order business,” commissioner Matt Scherr said.

Students and a teacher in an Aspen school wear masks at the beginning of the school year. Eagle County voted Thursday to end its mask mandate for public indoor spaces next week.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

The expiration of the mask mandate will de-escalate a feud between the county and Cornerstone Christian School, located between Basalt and El Jebel. Pastor Jim Tarr, executive director of the school, has repeatedly told county officials that wearing of a mask is a decision for parents rather than county public health officials.

Eagle County sought a temporary restraining order to force Cornerstone to comply but eased off when it was clear a hearing wouldn’t be held prior to Christmas break at the school.

County attorney Bryan Treu said Thursday the health board’s action resolves the major portion of the dispute with the private school. He said he hopes to resolve a possible issue with reporting of COVID-19 test results with the attorney for the school. An Eagle County judge has scheduled a status conference in the case for Tuesday.

In its vote Thursday, the Board of Health approved the recommendations of public health director Heath Harmon. He advised keeping the mask mandate in place four extra days for younger kids to give parents time to make adjustments, such as getting vaccinations for their children.

“Some people in the community would ask why would you do it now when rates are still high?” Harmon said of the mask mandate expiration. He noted that vaccination rates in Eagle County are extremely high and that omicron appears to be less severe than other strains of the disease.

But just as there has been confusion in the messaging by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on COVID-19, Eagle County’s adopted stance also runs the risk of sending a confusing message.

“We still are going to recommend highly the utilization of masks when you’re in indoor public settings, whether that’s a student, whether that’s an adult going into a grocery store,” Harmon said. “We’re still going to make that recommendation, but it’s just moving away from an actual requirement. (Masks) will still continue to play an important role as it relates to outbreaks, but wearing them while the outbreak is as high as it is still makes a lot of sense.”

Harmon suggested his recommendation was influenced by a desire to comprise.

“We as a community are still at a very polarized space relative to the virus.” — Heath Harmon, Eagle County public health director

“We as a community are still at a very polarized space relative to the virus,” he said. “We have some people who really want to have moved on from this (mandate) months ago, and we have others who don’t want to move on and have a lot of fear.

“I think what I wanted to do is help find ways to bring those two sides closer to center,” Harmon continued. “Realistically, with the immunity that we have in our community, we are prepared to take that step.”

Harmon said testing and taking appropriate steps when people test positive or are exposed will still be a big part of the effort to reduce COVID-19 rates. He said his department would continue to work with “partners” such as schools and businesses on appropriate quarantine rules for people who are exposed to someone with COVID-19. Isolation for five days remains a requirement for people who test positive, he said.

“Isolation is one piece I don’t see going away,” Harmon said.

Roughly a dozen people spoke at the Board of Health meeting. While Eagle County’s move to let the mask mandate expire was applauded, some speakers vented frustrations that the mandate was ever in place while others criticized what they labeled confusing information from Eagle County public health.

Jill Edinger, an attorney with small children in child care in the Roaring Fork Valley, was extremely agitated with quarantine rules that she said make no sense.

“I come to you as a mother, and I am at my breaking point,” Edinger told the commissioners.

Her main complaint was that a household with two children in the same day care facility could have one child sent home in quarantine because of an exposure in their school group while another child from the same household isn’t required to quarantine because they are in a different group.

“I am breaking at the seams because of these policies that are confusing, they cause friction in our school community among our friends, and they make no sense,” Edinger said. “They may have been defensible in the spring of 2020 when we didn’t know what this thing was. They are not defensible anymore.”

She urged the county to end the quarantines and said she won’t comply with them any longer.

“I’m dropping my kid off in Heath Harmon’s office next time there is a quarantine so I can go to work, and I mean it,” Edinger said.

Michelle Oger, executive director of Blue Lake Preschool, said Eagle County’s directives haven’t been clear. It puts the preschool staff in a “bad situation” to have to interpret the county’s information because parents get confused and agitated, she said.

Going forward, the county should be clear on what is an order and what is a guideline, Oger said.

While he didn’t respond directly to that request, Harmon said flexibility in rules would be vital until COVID-19 eases.

“We’re going to have to live with the ebb and flow of the spread,” Harmon said.

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