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District Attorney Asks Montezuma County To Retract Office Mask Policy

22nd Judicial District Attorney Will Furse is asking Montezuma County to walk back a policy of not enforcing Colorado’s mask mandate in its offices.

Speaking at">Tuesday’s county commission meeting, Furse said county administrator Shak Powers sent the notice in an email Friday, a day after Gov. Jared Polis announced the executive order aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Furse wants that email retracted for the safety of the health of both county staff and non-county staff, like Furse’s, who share office buildings.

“I’m asking the county, if anything, to express its action through silence,” Furse said in a prepared statement.

In the email, obtained by KSJD News through an open records request, Powers writes that county employees who choose not to wear a facial covering will not face disciplinary action. He adds, “there will also be zero tolerance of harassment towards employees or customers who choose to wear or not wear their facials coverings.”

On Monday, Furse replied to the email and asked who authorized the decision so he could gather background information ahead of his presentation at the commission meeting. Powers responded and said the email was sent without consulting the commission and “after seeing the posts on Facebook and receiving several requests for guidance from department heads (both for and against).”

He also attached a video in his response (that has been previously shared on the county’s Facebook page) where Polis says he respects those protesting against racism and police brutality, even as they gather in large groups during the pandemic. Powers has argued that because this same exemption was not given to religious services at the time, the governor’s orders “ceased to mean anything at all.”

The commission has not taken a formal stance on the mask mandate. But Furse also said - in his emails and again while speaking at Tuesday’s meeting - that statements on social media have an impact on mask compliance and public health. He then referred to a post made by Commissioner Larry Don Suckla on his personal Facebook page: “Montezuma county will not be enforcing Polis mask mandate.”

Furse said he is requiring his staff to wear masks and has made accommodations for those who would like to continue working remotely. He also acknowledged the mandate as “toothless” in how it describes penalties but also asked the county to encourage enforcement through trespassing for violators. But if the county will not follow the mandate in its offices, Furse said his staff will rent office space elsewhere.

The commission had also scheduled time to further discuss the mandate later in the meeting, separate from Furse’s comments shared during his district attorney updates. The discussion included a presentation on COVID-19 case statistics from Powers, who recognized the evidence of face coverings reducing virus transmission but did not fully back the mandate by saying state orders have not been enforced evenly across different purposes and groups.

Bobbi Lock, director of the Montezuma County Public Health Department, said her department has already been wearing masks in its offices as part of modeling the practice for the community. She also said steps toward protecting public health also protect the local economy.

“They intersect dramatically,” Lock said. “They’re not separate entities.”

The county sought a variance from state health orders earlier this year but it was not granted. In one meeting with county officials, a representative of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said compliance of masks and a lack of support from county leaders was a factor in the denial.

Commissioner Jim Candelaria suggested that departments continue to independently decide on about enforcing mask policies, as Furse and Lock are doing already.

“Let’s just respect each other, let’s be quiet, and let’s go on,” Candelaria said.

Suckla said the topic is a “nonissue” because of department autonomy. He later addressed Furse’s comments during the commissioner report at the end of the meeting, saying, “I will not have the district attorney tell me to be silent.”

Update (July 22, 2:09 p.m.): This article was updated to include a copy of and information from the policy email sent by Shak Powers.