With COVID-19 case counts falling in Colorado and vaccine distribution under way — albeit in a confusing and awkward manner — public-health officials are concerned about complacency regarding safety protocols designed to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. And based on a recent visit to downtown Colorado Springs, they should be.
On December 26, the overwhelming majority of pedestrians, shoppers and people simply hanging out in the area on a beautiful winter day didn't wear masks except inside stores, where they were forced to do so, even when they were right next to or conversing directly with others.
Granted, the level of compliance was a bit better than during our previous visit to downtown Colorado Springs, in late May 2020, during a period when El Paso County had some of the lowest infection rates of any metro area in the state. That would soon change, and while it's impossible to definitively connect the deterioration of COVID data to the rate of mask use, which was lower than 10 percent outside on the day we stopped by, folks who seemed to feel that the personal freedom to leave their nose and mouth unencumbered trumped the safety of everyone around them certainly didn't help matters.
As infections statewide climbed over the late summer and fall, mask use improved in most places, Colorado Springs included. But on December 26, when El Paso County was still at Level Red on the state's COVID-19 dial dashboard (Governor Jared Polis announced the switch of all Level Red Counties to Level Orange days later), only about 30 percent of the people we saw in downtown Colorado Springs wore facial coverings outdoors.
Outside a coffee shop, only one or two customers out of every ten remained masked while waiting for service, well before they had anything to eat or drink.
And as we strolled, we saw many people who seemed to think that having a beverage in hand meant their face could remain naked whether they were consuming something or not. The same went for folks on restaurant patios. Most were unmasked before food arrived, and they left the coverings off even after they were done eating.
In Acacia Park, we observed many mask-free, face-to-face conversations of the sort that wouldn't have prompted a second look prior to the pandemic but now fly in the face of medical best practices. The exception was the park's busy skating rink, where the facial-covering ratio was reversed: 70 percent of recreators wore masks.
There's plenty of blame to go around for such scenarios. In the early stages of the pandemic, Polis and others emphasized the greater safety of outside spaces, and hinted that mask use was much less necessary when distances of six feet or more were maintained.
As a result, the shift to guidelines urging people to wear masks whenever they were in public, indoors or out, seemed contradictory, especially for those already prone to an anti-mask bias.
Masks aside, the evidence of the pandemic's impact was everywhere in Colorado Springs on December 26. Traditionally, the day after Christmas is one of the busiest for retailers — but the number of people downtown was fairly modest, and we saw numerous empty storefronts.
Clearly, the pandemic can't end soon enough. But it may be unnecessarily extended if people prematurely decide that it's already over, as many mask-haters in the Springs appear to believe.