COVID-19: Social Distancing in Many Stores Already Going to Hell

The Walmart branch at 601 Englewood Parkway.
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The Walmart branch at 601 Englewood Parkway.
During press conferences leading up to the end of Colorado's stay-at-home order, Governor Jared Polis repeatedly said that the new Safer at Home phase, which began at 12:01 a.m. on April 27, shouldn't be seen as a return to what was normal in January and February; he stressed that maintaining proper social distancing and wearing masks whenever you leave home — and especially when you go shopping — is more important than ever. Failing to follow public-health guidance risks a second wave of infections that could produce another shutdown, he's warned.

Based on visits over the past few days to more than a dozen major stores throughout the Denver area, many of them in jurisdictions where stay-at-home orders have been extended to May 8, this message isn't getting across. Efforts to limit the capacity at retail outlets, which were becoming more common in early April, appear to have slackened considerably, resulting in overcrowded spaces in which recommended social distancing is often all but impossible.

And while the percentage of mask-wearing store employees has improved since Polis made face coverings for retail workers state law on April 17, it's far from universal. We saw plenty of staffers sans masks, and even more customers failing to don face coverings even in close quarters.

The worst examples were on view Saturday, April 25, inside a Walmart branch at 601 Englewood Parkway, where we spotted numerous mask-free workers. Moreover, approximately 80 percent of the customers weren't wearing masks, with many looking at the handful of patrons doing so with disdain and hostility, presumably for buying into the supposed virus hoax perpetrated by what President Donald Trump reflexively calls the lamestream media.

The lack of masks and social distancing were particularly unsettling given the April 23 closure of a Walmart in Aurora after three virus-related deaths, including a full-time employee, following what the Tri-County Health Department characterized as complaints about subpar social distancing and poor usage of masks by workers and customers alike. TCHD has since allowed the store to reopen.

Observance of capacity limits has loosened, too. On April 12, the branch at 11747 West Ken Caryl Avenue in Littleton required customers to line up outside and be admitted one by one as other customers left — a scenario we documented in a post about a burgeoning generation gap over masks. Two weeks later, on April 26, customers were able to come and go as they pleased, resulting in a more crowded store and a much more problematic shopping experience for those who wanted to keep at least six feet between themselves and others. Some patrons apologized when they belatedly realized they'd been monopolizing entire aisles, forcing others to wait for them to finish or else squeeze around them — a positive from the standpoint of simple politeness. But the situation overall was simply less safe than it had been.

And yes, the demographic least likely to wear masks remains men under thirty.

Even worse was the scenario on April 25 at the Glendale King Soopers, 4600 Leetsdale Drive. Around noon, the parking lot was as packed as on any regular Saturday, with nary a slot to be found, and customers were flooding through the entrance side by side. The same things were happening at other stores in Glendale that day, including a Dollar Tree, M & I International Market, a Walmart Neighborhood Market and more.

On August 26, a Costco at 7900 West Quincy Avenue in Littleton that had previously limited capacity wasn't doing so, either, with negative social-distancing consequences inside as a result. And earlier in the week, a different Costco, at 8686 Park Meadows Center Drive, skipped monitoring the number of shoppers, too, causing the store's aisles to become too crowded for social distancing — a problem exacerbated by the more than 50 percent of customers who weren't wearing masks.

The Home Depot at 3000 West Belleview Avenue in Littleton performed better. Early on April 26, customers could enter as they pleased, but once a certain capacity was reached, the store set up a line outside. But while most employees were masked, some weren't, including one worker who engaged in an extended conversation with an unmasked customer from only a few inches away.

Not every store we visited earned dispiriting marks. In late March, a Trader Joe's branch in Littleton was virtually a mask-free zone, but since then, the chain has become the local gold standard for good pandemic behavior. On the April 25, the use of masks and social distancing at the 5910 South University Boulevard store in Greenwood Village appeared to be 100 percent — for both employees and shoppers alike.

That number will cheer officials hoping that the end of stay-at-home orders won't produce a lethal spike in cases of the novel coronavirus. The others definitely won't.