In recent discussions of Colorado's fight against COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis has warned about "backsliding" when it comes to best safety practices, such as wearing masks in public and physical distancing. If residents and businesses don't "double down" on such measures, Polis warned, Colorado's flattened curve could start tilting upward again, as has happened in neighboring Arizona, now experiencing a spike.
This scenario seems plausible based on our observations at some major Denver-area retailers over the weekend: The conditions at a Costco branch in Littleton and two south suburban Target outlets epitomized the sort of behavior that state public-health officials have been warning against for months.
We first wrote about the Costco at 7900 West Quincy Avenue on March 16, during the early days of the pandemic response, when retailers were taking their first awkward steps toward implementing new policies, and some improvements were evident during our most recent visit on June 19. For instance, a staff member was spraying all of the carts collected at the front of the store with disinfectant, and while his mask wasn't actually over his nose and mouth at one point, at least he was outside. Moreover, the vast majority of patrons and all of the other employees we saw wore facial coverings — a big improvement from three months earlier.
The problem was the number of people in the store. Businesses such as Costco are supposed to be limiting capacity to 50 percent, in order to allow people to maintain gaps of six feet or more from each other. But when we stopped by, no one was monitoring the number of customers entering, resulting in crowds as large as any we'd seen on high-traffic days at the store prior to COVID-19's arrival in Colorado.
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The center area near the meat and produce sections was absolutely mobbed, with many customers literally shoulder to shoulder. Exacerbating the jam was the complete absence of directional floor markers establishing one-way aisles. Patrons flowed anywhere and everywhere, regularly popping the bubbles of those around them not from maliciousness, but because there was no other choice. We couldn't get out of there fast enough.
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The scenario was different at Target branches at 11150 South Twenty Mile Road in Parker and 1265 Sergeant Jon Stiles Drive in Highlands Ranch. On June 19, the capacity level at both stores was acceptable, and so was mask use by employees. But barely over half of the customers were wearing masks — a considerably lower percentage than we've encountered at Target stores over the past few months.
Both Parker and Highlands Ranch skew conservative, and given the unfortunate politicization of facial coverings, this shift isn't exactly shocking. But thanks to an executive order signed by Polis earlier this month, businesses have a right to refuse service to those not wearing masks. That the management at these two Targets chose not to do so suggests that facial covering use there could continue to deteriorate as time goes on.
The news isn't all dire. In response to a report from a reader about unmasked employees and unconcerned supervisors at the Walmart at 14000 East Exposition in Aurora, where an outbreak was connected to three deaths, we returned to the scene on Saturday, June 20 — and our experiences were very different. Not only was entrance to the store still being held to a one-in, one-out basis, but the employee at the front doors was providing masks to those without them. Inside, we didn't see a single employee with an uncovered face, and while some customers had lowered their masks beneath their nose and mouth, more than 90 percent of them wore them properly. In addition, safety advisories were still being broadcast on a regular basis on the sound system inside and outside the store — something a lot less common at major chains now than it was just a few weeks ago — and directional aisles helped maintain social distancing without making shopping more difficult.
If more stores don't keep procedures like these in place for the long haul, though, Colorado's status as a COVID-19 success story may not be built to last.