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For Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria, Mask ‘Requests’ Are Better Than Mandates

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Montezuma County/YouTube
As coronavirus infections surge, Montezuma County commissioners have chosen to continue not wearing masks during meetings, including Jim Candelaria (third from left).

Some of the Montezuma County Commission’s responses to the recent surge in COVID-19 cases have included reopening the county emergency operations center, monitoring the number of hospital beds available, and coordinating information between departments and agencies.

However, masks are generally absent from their initiatives. The commission has not supported the Colorado statewide mask mandate, and commissioners have not formally recommended wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

KSJD’s Austin Cope spoke with Commissioner Jim Candelaria on Monday about that decision, and why he says it comes from the commissioners’ desire to respect “different viewpoints” on whether or not to wear masks.

This transcript has been edited for clarity. Audio for an extended interview on the commission’s response to rising coronavirus infections, including more on Candelaria’s decision not to wear masks at commission meetings, is available below the transcript. 

Austin Cope, KSJD: I think one of the deeper issues here is … respecting somebody, and also looking out for their safety. And one of the reasons the mask debate has become such a big thing is because you have one side of the population saying, “scientists are saying that mask-wearing will protect somebody else.” And you have public health officials saying a similar thing. And you have another section of the people who are speaking in terms of their own personal viewpoint, where they’ve “done their own research.” They see that recommendation as an infringement on their personal rights and their personal views. And they see that as disrespectful. So, how do you bridge that together?

Jim Candelaria, Montezuma County Commissioner: They see it as disrespectful, or breaking a constitutional right.

Cope: Right. On one side, you have somebody who is saying, “this person is not wearing a mask. They’re being disrespectful to me and to somebody who could catch the virus.” On the other side, you have somebody talking about, “well, don’t tell me what to do.” How do we bridge that gap, and what is the commissioners’ role in that gap?

Candelaria: That’s a hundred-dollar question. And I wish I could give you a hundred-dollar answer to it.

Cope: What, as a commissioner, are you doing?

Candelaria: Here, as a commissioner, is what I do: when I walk into our public health department, we have given our department heads the latitude to run their departments the way they feel they need to run it. Our department head, at public health, is an appointed position, not an elected official. She asks that we wear a mask. When I walk into that [office], because I do have to communicate with her, I respect the way she’s running her department. I will put on a mask. I don’t argue with it — that’s respect.

Cope: But she’s not mandating you to wear a mask. She’s asking. [cross talk]. At what point do you see it becoming a mandate?

Candelaria: I don’t see it becoming a mandate.

Cope: So, if somebody in your office is saying, ‘please wear a mask,’ how do you see that differently, than say, someone in charge … for example, the governor. You see the governor’s [executive order] as a mandate, you see somebody in your office as a request. How do you draw that line?

Candelaria: I think you can get a lot more with a request than you can with mandates. Mandates don’t work. That’s an extreme. And to me, extremism on either side never works. So that’s where I’m at, is, if you ask with respect to somebody, I think you’re going to get a lot farther. That’s not what has happened.

Cope: Maybe that’s the question that we’re trying to answer as a community, is, ‘how do we ask with respect?”

Candelaria: How do we ask with respect …

Cope: How do you ask with respect?

Candelaria: Because I can ask with respect differently than somebody else.

Cope: But you, personally, how do you do that? Say, you’re trying to get your family member to do something. How do you do that, and how does that play into the way that you govern?

Candelaria: How I ask a family member … first of all, I have to know my family member. Because one I can ask, and get anything, and the other one, I have to walk very softly, and gingerly, and try to figure out how to get to these people. And that’s what we have right now. We have two different sides of the people that we all govern.

Cope: Right. So how, as an elected official, outside of the home, does that play into your work?

Candelaria: Here is what we’ve asked as an elected official. If you’re sick, stay home. Wash your hands. Take care of yourself. Those are respectful asks. And if people choose to go out into the workforce and be sick, and then contaminate other people. All we’ve done is ask. We have asked people to stay home if they’re sick. How do you mandate that? How do you control that? There’s no way to control that.

Cope: So, that’s a more important thing, you’re saying, than the effect that somebody has by going out into the world and infecting other people?

Candelaria: I think that by asking people to do the right thing, you’re going to get more of that done than by trying to mandate that and push something down somebody’s throat. I don’t think you’re going to be successful. It’s proven to not be successful right now, just within our state, you know, this [executive order] is a mandate, but you go around the state, there are people not wearing masks anywhere. And for whatever reason. They’re not conducting an interview or speaking in a public meeting. So I believe we need to get back to being good people. And respect, and asking, and knowing that, when you ask, you might get a ‘no.’ But then, at that point, you have to be able to remove yourself, say, “okay, I don’t need to go here,” or “you don’t need to be here.”

Interview: Montezuma County Commissioner Jim Candelaria on mask compliance and the county's response to a surge in coronavirus infections. (Extended web-only interview)

Austin Cope is a former Morning Edition host for KSJD and now produces work on a freelance basis for the station. He grew up in Cortez and hosted a show on KSJD when he was 10 years old. After graduating from Montezuma-Cortez High School in 2010, he lived in Belgium, Ohio, Spain, northern Wyoming, and Himachal Pradesh, India before returning to the Cortez area. He has a degree in Politics from Oberlin College in Ohio.