Last weekend, in the immediate aftermath of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's May 13 announcement that fully vaccinated people can eschew masks and social distancing in most indoor and outdoor locations, we found that facial covering use in metro Denver remained surprisingly strong.
Would the situation be similar in Weld County, one of the state's most conservative jurisdictions, where early on some officials fought masking requirements and other safety protocols? On Sunday, May 23, we traveled to greater Greeley, the county's largest community, to find out.
In the three major Greeley stores we visited — a Home Depot, a King Soopers and a Walmart, all three of which allow fully vaccinated people to skip face coverings — mask usage ranged from spotty to rare. And we observed a fascinating racial component: People of color were much more likely to don a face covering than were their white counterparts.
Weld County commissioners have been up in arms about COVID-19 safety protocols since shortly after shutdown orders were issued more than a year ago. Governor Jared Polis had issued a warning to Weld County back in April 2020 over indications that the municipality was about to go rogue regarding rules related to the transition from Stay at Home to Safer at Home status. And earlier this year, an organization that dubbed itself Weld County Wyoming began advocating for secession from Colorado and a new alliance with the state to its immediate north.
Given this history, it's no surprise that Weld County's COVID-19 statistics fall short of outstanding. As of May 23, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's vaccine data dashboard, 52.4 percent of Weld's eligible population has been immunized with at least one dose. Since the total doesn't include children under twelve, that means well under half of Weld's citizens have gotten an initial shot and even fewer are fully protected against the novel coronavirus. Since Weld County's rate was 50.7 percent on May 4, that translates to an increase of just 1.7 percent over a nearly three-week period.
The state health department's COVID-19 dial dashboard shows that Weld County would be at Level Orange under the state's old monitoring system, with a two-week cumulative incidence rate of 270.3 cases per 100,000 residents — toward the upper end of county infection levels statewide.
These numbers suggest that we should have found more than half of the people we encountered at Greeley stores on May 23 to be masked, since the guidelines allow for only fully vaccinated people to skip facial coverings. But at the Home Depot, that definitely wasn't the case. Approximately 30 percent of store employees wore face coverings, and that performance absolutely dwarfed that of customers, only about one in ten of whom had used a mask.
The scarcity of masks there had us expecting similar percentages at nearby King Soopers and Walmart branches, but that didn't prove to be the case. At both stores, mask use was in the 60 percent range for employees and around 40 percent for customers — roughly in line with vaccination totals in Weld County to date.
Of course, there was no way of telling if people without masks had been fully vaccinated, or if those wearing them had been vaccinated but were choosing to don a face covering anyway. The CDC's rules are solely enforced by the honor system, and the mask-use disparities among racial groups imply that other factors are at play. Yes, some Caucasians wore masks and some people of color didn't. But by and large, white folks at the King Soopers and Walmart were much more apt to be bare-faced, and most customers of color still masked up.
The pandemic landscape is shifting rapidly, and the situation in Greeley, greater Weld County and beyond could be entirely different a week or a month from now. The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing sociological experiment, and each of us is a subject.
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