Coronavirus

COVID-19 Update: What Aurora's Outbreak Walmart Is Like Now

The line outside the Aurora outbreak Walmart on May 2. The two women in the foreground weren't wearing masks, but left before entering the store.
The line outside the Aurora outbreak Walmart on May 2. The two women in the foreground weren't wearing masks, but left before entering the store. Photo by Michael Roberts
On April 23, the Tri-County Health Department closed a Walmart store at 14000 East Exposition in Aurora after three deaths related to COVID-19, including that of a full-time employee, and widespread reports of poor mask use and social distancing among staffers and patrons alike. The outlet was allowed to reopen again three days later, on April 26, but in its most recent report, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment lists this Walmart among the state's 157 virus outbreak sites.

Here's the statement that Walmart released about the store's reopening:
With the approval and guidance of the Tri-County Health Department, we have re-opened our store at 14000 East Exposition Avenue in Aurora. In addition to following the extensive measures we already have in place — such as requiring associates to wear masks or other face coverings, limiting the number of customers in the store, plexiglass barriers at checkout lanes and pharmacy areas, and social distancing floor decals at entrances and checkout lanes — we remain focused on the safety and well-being of our associates and customers. We are reinforcing with our associates the importance of open communication and compliance with social distancing measures. We will continue working closely with health officials during a time our customers are relying on us for food, medicine and other essential needs. 
What's shopping at the store like now? Still an infectious-disease shit show? Or an improved experience for the pandemic-era shopper? On the afternoon of Saturday, May 2, we decided to find out.

We arrived to find customers lined up outside the store at six-foot distances designated by tape on the sidewalk leading to the entrance, all wearing masks with just a couple of exceptions — the pair of women standing directly in front of us, naturally. However, the two soon headed back into the parking lot, and while we didn't hear them say they were doing so because they'd forgotten their masks, their lack of face coverings was presumably obvious even to them.

At the front of the line, a Walmart employee using a tablet was carefully monitoring the capacity of the store and allowing folks to enter only if a like number exited — a best practice encouraged for weeks by health experts but used only intermittently at grocery purveyors we've visited over that span.

click to enlarge Inside the Walmart, floor stickers helped customers maintain proper social distancing. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Inside the Walmart, floor stickers helped customers maintain proper social distancing.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Inside, the limiting of customers immediately paid dividends. The store definitely didn't feel crowded, and allowed for social distancing with a minimum of lingering or sidestepping. Moreover, floor stickers showing six-foot distances and offering suggested places to stand in order to allow others to get past safely were on view throughout the produce section and in every aisle — a thorough job.

Granted, some customers were oblivious to social distancing, either encroaching on fellow patrons in mildly uncomfortable ways or taking up a position in the middle of an aisle and staying there, effectively cutting off access to everyone else. Moreover, we saw one Walmart associate ignoring distancing suggestions, weaving through customers only a few inches away.

But these were exceptions to the rule. Most of the shoppers we saw were actively trying to be polite to everyone around them — or else there was so much room that the effect was the same. Better yet, we didn't see a single customer or employee without a face covering of some sort. The success rate of 100 percent was definitely the highest we've found since Governor Jared Polis first donned a mask at a press conference on April 3 — a predecessor to his April 17 order making mask use by employees at grocery stores mandatory.

Indeed, the only uncomfortable moment during our visit came when we spotted an elderly Walmart employee who had oxygen tubes snaking under his own face covering, suggesting that he was doubly vulnerable to COVID-19. Given that Sandy Kunz, the staffer at the Walmart who died, was 72 years old and on oxygen when she was infected, the decision to have this man work in the main part of the store rather than in the back room or another area where he would encounter fewer risks would seem suspect.

For the most part, though, this Walmart was the model of safe, or at least safer, grocery shopping amid the current crisis — a big step in the right direction.

Are proper policies being followed so closely at this Walmart because the branch is obviously under close scrutiny by authorities, or is it indicative of the approach at other metro Denver stores in the chain? Stay tuned.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts