At 5 p.m. Friday, November 20, the City and County of Denver entered Level Red, the severe section on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Enivronment's dial dashboard tracking COVID-19 statistics. In advance of this designation, which carries restrictions against indoor dining at restaurants, orders an 8 p.m. last call and more, Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Michael Hancock exhorted residents to double up on safety efforts, including wearing masks in public whenever they're around others — even outside.
This last ask struck us as a significant challenge. In some U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., mask culture has grown so strong that it's rare to see anyone without a facial covering, whether they're in a store or strolling on a sidewalk. But in Denver and the majority of other Colorado places we've visited over recent months, a large percentage of people seem to feel that masks are unnecessary whether they're alone on a mountain trail or amid a large number of pedestrians in shopping districts.
On November 21, the first full day of Level Red in Denver, we decided to visit some of the Mile High's favorite outdoor gathering places to see if the worsening situation — and the possibility of a new stay-at-home order should the numbers spiral even further out of control — would make more people mask up outdoors.
Spoiler alert: For the most part, outdoor masking in busy settings was no better than it's been for months. Indeed, the opinion of many that facial coverings are only important inside appears to be so baked in at this point that changing the behavior may be impossible, no matter how many spikes take place.
Our first stop was the 16th Street Mall, where around 50 percent of shoppers we saw wore no facial coverings even though there were plenty of other people around — enough that passing groups shoulder to shoulder was commonplace.
Granted, most folks attempted to maintain social distancing; there wasn't a lot of space-invading, even on the mall shuttle, which carried only a small handful of passengers per run. But clustering still happened at intersections and around a couple of musicians, including one who skipped a mask even though he was simply playing instrumental guitar music — no singing — when we were in the area.
These people all seemed to be local. We spotted two groups of what appeared to be international tourists, and all of their members were wearing N95 masks.
But whether the people skipping facial coverings lived in Denver proper, outlying suburbs or more far-flung locales, their willingness to leave their noses and mouths open to the elements suggested that the pandemic was over, rather than just reaching its highest peak to date in Colorado.
The scenario wasn't nearly as sketchy in RiNo. We saw a few people walking along Larimer without face coverings, but probably eight out of ten faces we spotted were properly masked.
Of course, almost all the diners at outdoor patios at eateries such as Il Posto and Denver Central Market, which are allowed under the new Level Red regulations, were barefaced.
Although health officials recommend that masks be worn in such settings whenever customers aren't eating or drinking, we didn't see much evidence of that. But table spacing was generous and people were respectful of those in the vicinity — and the personnel we observed were scrupulous about safety. On what was a truly gorgeous fall Colorado day, their work offered hope that restaurants will be able to continue this service on many days over the cold weather months.
Final stop: Washington Park. When we visited the area in early April, just after Polis recommended mask use, the face-covering buy-in was almost nonexistent, so seeing 30 to 40 percent of the weekend athletes wearing one on November 21 constituted an improvement. But this number hardly suggested that Level Red was prominent on anyone's mind.
Most runners and cyclists went without masks, as did many of those engaged in group athletic activities. There were easily a half-dozen volleyball games taking place during our visit, clearly involving people from different households, and we didn't see any players wearing masks. But hugging, embracing, back-slapping, high-fiving and the like were on full display.
Either these folks didn't hear what Polis and Hancock had to say...or they didn't care. But in any event, wearing masks outside in Denver doesn't seem likely to become a universal practice, no matter what color level the city has reached.
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