Diners don facemasks in Ridgway’s El Agave Azul. Face coverings are now mandatory in Ouray County businesses. (Photo by Leslie Vreeland/Telluride Daily Planet)

Ridgway resident Suze Gingery called it “long overdue.”

Ridgway Mayor John Clark said it’s “something I’ve been pushing for for awhile.”

And last Friday, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — and on the cusp of a busy holiday weekend, during which thousands visit the San Juans — what Gingery, Clark and others hoped for at last became law; face coverings were made mandatory in Ouray County.

Specifically, per Countywide Public Health Order No. 9, anyone entering, “waiting in line to enter” or inside buildings open to the public, including any Town of Ridgway, City or Ouray or county-operated building “of any kind,” is now required to wear a face covering.

There are exceptions, for children aged 3 or younger or those within day care facilities, and for persons “for whom a face covering would cause impairment to an existing health condition.”

And for anyone eating or drinking, of course, wearing a face covering is impossible

But for everyone else, indoor coverings are no longer voluntary; they are required by law.

“I think it’s past due,” Gingery said of the new ordinance. “I really want the governor to make mask-wearing a statewide mandate. It’s such a patchwork of ordinances right now. All the visitors coming in this summer,” many of which could be asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus, “really scares me.”

“Obviously, we were later to the (ordinance) game than many other counties in our peer group,” said Ouray County Commissioner Ben Tisdel.

Indeed, the new requirement was crafted specifically to align with similar ordinances in effect in Durango, Silverton and Telluride, all heavily visited, along with Ridgway and Ouray, by travelers who traverse the high-mountain passes between these neighboring communities along the 236-mile-long San Juan Skyway Scenic Byway. The route, which ascends from 6,200 feet to 11,208 feet in elevation, winds through “five life zones and is the equivalent of traveling from Alaska to Northern Mexico,” according to CDOT, is considered one of the most scenic drives in North America. The most popular portion is from Ouray to Silverton, along precipitous Red Mountain Pass, which attracts thousands of motorists (on just that stretch of road alone) every year.

Over the past few weeks, as visitation to this region has climbed — and as signs requesting people wear facemasks went up — it became increasingly obvious not only that not everyone doesn’t believe in them, but that some people were outright defying the request. (A couple visitors to the Ridgway Farmers Market in Town Park who were asked to don face coverings reportedly likened the request to “a communist dictatorship” and “Nazi Germany.”)

“I’d been hearing for at least a week or two via email, and text messages, and phone calls from people who wanted us to make this mandatory,” Mayor John Clark said. “When the Town of Ridgway passed its resolution strongly encouraging the use of masks, we talked about making it mandatory, but at least one business owner didn’t want to, at least initially.”

Over the course of the last couple weeks, “it became increasingly clear it wasn’t fair to business owners not to back them up with a mandatory requirement.”

In fact, Tisdel said, “we’ve been concerned since March,” when stay-at-home orders went into place, about how neighboring states “were coming along with their containment plans.”

Tisdel checked local visitors’ center logbooks back in April to see where most people come from.

“It turns out most of our visitors are from in-state, but also from Texas and Arizona, which are famously not in control of their outbreaks,” he said. “We’ve done a really good job of containing this within our local population. There’s the concern that someone from one of these states could be asymptomatic and spread this in our community. We had a flood of visitors to Ouray right after the ski area in Telluride closed. Our first case in Ouray County was attributable to that.”

Then too, testing has revealed “an uptick in our local COVID-19 cases” over the past few weeks, Tisdel added. “I think any rule of this sort has to be based on the will of the community, and the first kind of enforcement mechanism is voluntary compliance. We had a lot of requests, and a lot of evidence that it should be made mandatory. The two municipalities basically said, it’s better if the county” submits an order. “It’s within our statutory authority, within the authority of the public health director, to issue such an order,” Tisdel went on. “There are clearly some people who are confused about that authority, and we’ve had some pushback from people who don’t believe the virus is real and think this is an infringement on their rights. This order comes from the public health director, who would not want to issue something without the Board of Health reviewing it and giving it the thumbs up” as “the type of order that might be appropriate for the community.”

The order is very new “and so far, we’ve had a lot of thank-yous and a few negative messages,” Tisdel added. “For businesses that are getting pushback, it’s helpful for them to be able to say, ‘This isn’t our policy, it’s a county health order, to keep businesses open and safe.’ If we have an outbreak between now and September, there’s a good possibility that schools can’t open. We’re thinking ahead. The whole county deserves protection.”

In these first few days since the order has been passed, officials are doing a lot of explaining of what it means, but no ticket-writing is happening yet. That could change. 

“There are some places that we know about” that aren’t enforcing the order, Tisdel said, and eventually “enforcement actions will happen, going forward. It will be a coordinated effort. I think no one wants to see penalties apply, but it’s possible. The penalties would be the same as those permitted by statute for violation of a local ordinance,” which can be a fine of up to $5,000 and imprisonment of 18 months.

“What I wish people would realize is that this on a par with sacrifices we had to make during World War II when things were dire,” Clark said. “The country came together and people made sacrifices for the good of the community. This isn’t any different. It’s so basic. The idea that it’s somehow a threat to someone’s civil liberties, to keep them from killing someone else” by donning a face covering to prevent unwittingly exposing another person to the virus, is almost impossible for Clark to understand. “I’m totally in support of this mandate, it’s essential, and it’s going to help protect our community,” he said. “The other thing it’s going to do is protect our businesses. If we have to lock down again, that will spell the end of a bunch of our businesses. If you don’t believe in the virus, I guess there’s nothing I can say to convince you otherwise. Science doesn’t lie.”