COVID-19: Many Outdoor Workers in Denver Area Rejecting Masks

COVID-19: Many Outdoor Workers in Denver Area Rejecting Masks
Photo by SAMS Solutions on Unsplash
Mayor Michael Hancock has teased that a new rule requiring people to wear masks in public as part of the fight against COVID-19 will be coming next week, and there are plenty of reasons why — not just the startling rise of cases in most Denver neighborhoods, but also the low use of masks by folks out and about both within city limits and around metro Denver.

It's not just people walking in neighborhoods or visiting local parks who are eschewing mask use. In recent weeks, we've also noted that many people working outside on infrastructure and maintenance projects are rejecting face coverings and ignoring social-distancing recommendations, too.

Some of these decisions are clearly ideological. This week, we spotted four members of a mask-free work crew standing within inches of each other after dining at a food truck (they'd finished eating). One was wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the word "Freedom" — by which he presumably meant "Freedom to potentially infect and possibly kill anyone breathing my air."

But for whatever reason, many construction workers, landscapers, sanitation pros and other people doing critical jobs in the metro area over the past month clearly consider mask-wearing inessential.

Some examples:

A crew of approximately ten people were toiling on a private construction site along Sixth Avenue near Santa Fe Drive in Denver. None wore masks, and they were conversing within a foot or two of each other, as if it was January and the word "coronavirus" was not yet a common part of many conversations.

A maintenance crew in Jefferson County was taking a break at an apartment complex. A man wearing a mask was talking on his cell phone, while three mask-free colleagues hung out in a tight circle.

Trash collectors went from house to house throughout a neighborhood in the same area wearing work gloves but no masks, regularly coming within a few feet of residents and each other.

Indeed, these workers frequently are in close proximity to members of the general public, which raises concerns about infections on a wider scale beyond their co-workers.

And then there are those workers on highway projects for the Colorado Department of Transportation. In an interview for an April 30 post about lower traffic volumes helping CDOT speed up its progress for interstate upgrades, spokesperson Tamara Rollison told us, "While construction continues, we strictly adhere to social distancing and COVID-19 prevention measures. This includes crews working individually as much as possible, in smaller work groups, with social distancing in place. Crew members wear face coverings and follow sanitation procedures."

Based on our observations, these pledges are aspirational rather than realistic. We eyeballed at least a dozen crews along I-70, C-470 and more during April, and seldom did mask use approach 50 percent. Indeed, three mask-wearers out of ten was typically a high figure — which is particularly weird, given that such crews should be accustomed to donning masks, since they often cover their faces to keep dust out of their mouths when using heavy equipment. In addition, social distancing has appeared to be the exception rather than the rule.

The issue of masks has been tricky...and confusing. If employers offer their policies on mask use as a suggestion as opposed to a mandate that will result in negative repercussions if it's shrugged off — and if those employers don't supply masks for workers who do not have them — face coverings may continue to be relative rarities at outdoor work sites.

Governor Jared Polis has repeatedly advised people to wear masks whenever they leave home, but at this point, that advisory is merely a recommendation, not the law — and that's also currently the case in Denver.

Inside businesses that are being allowed to open up around the state today, though, the rules are more stringent. And this week, Polis showed support for those businesses by touting signs saying, "No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service."
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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