Unmasked Shopping in Metro Denver: Surprises and Coughs

A sizable percentage of customers and employees went mask-free at Costco, which is allowing vaccinated people to skip facial coverings.
Photo by Michael Roberts
A sizable percentage of customers and employees went mask-free at Costco, which is allowing vaccinated people to skip facial coverings.
The sixty-something couple at a Jefferson County Costco on Sunday, May 16, included a man who wore no mask and a woman whose paper facial covering dangled from her ear.

"Take that off," the man told her as they exited the produce section, a note of irritation in his voice. "We've been vaccinated." The woman promptly did so — but his sharp suggestion would have been considerably less problematic if it hadn't been preceded by a cough.

The pair weren't doing anything wrong. On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention abruptly declared that fully vaccinated people didn't have to wear masks or practice physical distancing in most indoor and outdoor settings, and the next day, Governor Jared Polis announced that Colorado would follow the feds' lead. In the meantime, municipalities across metro Denver, including Jefferson County, had said they'd switch to Level Clear, a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment designation that lifts all capacity restrictions for businesses and most events, as of May 16.

As a result, retail outlets were left to decide if they would drop their masking and/or capacity rules or leave them in place. Kroger, owner of the King Soopers grocery stores in Colorado, chose to maintain its mask policy for now, while Costco and major chains such as Trader Joe's and Walmart announced that they would let people shop with bare faces if they were fully vaccinated, based on the honor system. In other words, no passport or other proof of vaccination would be required before they ditched the mask.
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A higher percentage of customers and all the employees were masked at Trader Joe's despite the company's policy allowing vaccinated people to skip facial coverings.
Photo by Michael Roberts
To see how people were reacting to this sudden change after more than a year of restrictions, we visited four Jeffco operations on Sunday: a King Soopers, a Costco, a Trader Joe's and a Walmart. While the scenes differed from one spot to the next, a higher percentage of people overall were still wearing masks than might have been predicted.

For now, anyway.

At the King Soopers, the same public-address-system announcement about mask usage that's been sounding for months could be heard every fifteen minutes or so — and at first glance, nothing about the shopping experience seemed to have changed, either. All of the employees wore facial coverings (although some had them on incorrectly, as usual), and most of the customers did, too. But during our visit, we spotted three people — two women and a man — without masks, and no one said boo to them. At this branch, at least, the approach seems to be a COVID-19 variation on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," no matter the corporation's official position.

This was reinforced when we returned to the store to pick up an item we'd forgotten. As we entered, an elderly man beside us walked in with a paper mask on his chin. He put his hand on it as he came through the entrance, as if waiting to see if anyone would tell him to raise it in order to confirm with Kroger policy — and when no one did, he left it down.

Next stop: Costco, where many more people were mask-free, but still not a majority. The mask-free approach seemed to be a family affair: We saw multiple groups with kids in the elementary- and middle-school range who were unlikely to have been vaccinated walking around with no facial coverings, just like Mom and Dad. Of course, no employees we saw suggested that this might be a problem. About a third of the employees here were skipping masks, too. This last scenario definitely stood out; all of the workers at the other three stores we visited were masked.

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Most Walmart employees and customers continued to use masks even though the company is allowing them to skip facial coverings if they've been vaccinated.
Photo by Michael Roberts
The move by Trader Joe's to allow unmasked customers was unexpected. After all, this operation is perceived to have a comparatively liberal clientele, and it had enforced safety rules such as capacity limits, asking patrons to line up and wait to enter stores during busy periods long after most of its competitors had quietly junked this approach.

On Sunday, the line outside the Jeffco Trader Joe's was nonexistent, but a couple of hand-sanitizer containers were left on some concrete posts outside the front doors. Inside, we saw just three customers — two women and a man, just like at King Soopers — without masks. Everyone else was strapped up as usual, but as we were leaving, three more customers with uncovered faces were approaching.

While Trader Joe's clientele is perceived to be progressive, Walmart's is seen as skewing conservative. Yet facial coverings were still the order of the day for all but eight or nine people at the Jeffco branch we toured. Several were white men of a certain age, but just as many were teenagers, whose likelihood of having been vaccinated was ultra-low. Meanwhile, a masked Walmart employee manned the door, counting each person who entered and exited, just as the store has done since back when capacity limits were still a thing.

Given how quickly restrictions were lifted, behaviors could soon change. But on Day One, at least, a lot of people who could have left their masks at home chose to put them on instead.

And one last observation: The King Soopers we visited has a Little Clinic that gives out vaccinations, and a few weeks back, we'd regularly see long queues of people awaiting inoculations. On this Sunday, the clinic was open...but no one was getting a shot.