The other day, I was in a metro-area Dollar Tree to stock up on Smarties (because, obviously, Smarties are good) when I saw him: the one guy in the store without a mask.
The modest-sized outlet was fairly crowded — around fifteen to twenty customers and three employees desperately trying to handle the rush, with just one checkout line open. Yet all the workers and everyone waiting to pay for items, as well as various shoppers in the aisles, wore a facial covering. Some were cloth, others were made of disposable paper, and all but one were worn properly, concealing both nose and mouth. Even a woman energetically talking on a cell phone was masked, putting the lie to the complaint about the voices of those so garbed being impossible to understand. Hell, the people in the parking lot could probably have picked out every word she spoke, loud and clear.
There was a single mask-free exception to this rule: a man of a certain age — fifties, I'd say — wearing a trucker-style cap to better correspond with what has become a pandemic-era stereotype. He didn't appear to be shopping; instead, he moved seemingly at random through assorted sections of the store, passing uncomfortably close to those nearby, then planted himself near the entrance, where he defiantly made eye contact with me after I glanced his way. I quickly concluded that he hadn't forgotten to don a mask. No, I surmised: He'd eschewed one purposefully and was hoping to provoke a confrontation should anyone make mention of his bare mug. He was probably rehearsing an aggrieved response replete with terms such as "freedom" and "sheeple" at that very moment.
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All of which triggered a seven-word question: What the fuck was wrong with him?
The answer isn't as simple as it seems. After all, mask-wearing in the Mile High has gone through several iterations over the seven months-plus since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Colorado. At first, the odds of encountering someone with a face covering was roughly a 50/50 proposition. But as time ground on and health orders at the city and state level mandated wearing masks in grocery stores and other public places, compliance gradually improved to the point where it was rare to see a customer with his schnozzola and yap on display. Just as significant, few people seemed to be stressed over the requirement. The majority would have preferred not to be masked, of course, but under the circumstances, they realized that it just wasn't that big of a deal.
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For the most part, that remains the case. But in recent weeks, as COVID-19 fatigue has grown, during our visits to shops and stores, we've noticed a small but growing percentage of employees and patrons doing the mouth-guard or chin-strap thing, or even occasionally using their neck gaiters as scarves instead of protective gear.
This trend is happening at the worst possible time. As Governor Jared Polis noted this week, case counts and positivity rates related to the novel coronavirus have hit an all-time high, with the numbers largely driven up by Denver and Adams counties. Should these metrics continue to climb unchecked, Mayor Michael Hancock has warned of crackdowns or shutdowns along the lines of a new stay-at-home mandate.
These prospects are unlikely to have an impact on people like the Dollar Tree dope. No one at the store called him out, including me, for fear of prompting an argument. Instead, we stayed as far away from him as we could, treating him like a pariah — which, in the age of COVID-19, he certainly was.
If only I could have said what I was thinking: Stop being an asshole and put on a mask.