We don't know if the man we saw at a metro Denver store on May 3 was purposefully expressing his disdain for rules about wearing masks amid the COVID-19 outbreak or not, but his act certainly symbolized how many people in Colorado see the mandate. As we watched, he removed an orange bandanna that could presumably have been used as a face covering from around his neck and blew his nose into it. Loudly. Lustily. Wetly.
It happened at a Walmart. And while we didn't stick around to see if he subsequently wore the bandanna as a mask, we kinda doubt it.
We visited this Walmart branch, at 5957 West 44th Avenue, and a nearby Target store at 5071 Kipling Street in advance of Denver's new mandatory mask-use regulation, which goes into effect today, May 6, because they're located near Wheat Ridge, which had already gone down a similar path.
On April 22, Wheat Ridge City Manager Patrick Goff announced a requirement that anyone entering a business in the city must wear a mask between April 27 and May 30.
But on April 27, in a move that received infinitely less publicity, the Wheat Ridge City Council, which didn't have a meeting the previous week, unanimously revised Goff's edict to make wearing a mask in stores voluntary, albeit strongly recommended. According to city spokesperson Sara Spaulding, the council acted in the wake of feedback from businesses and the public, as well as the realization that "enforcement was a significant challenge because of the resources that would be required to go out on every single report."
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Because of this shift, as well as conflicting messages coming from such officials as Governor Jared Polis and Mayor Michael Hancock as to whether mask use was compulsory or just a really good idea, there's widespread confusion in and around Wheat Ridge about how the system works. But signs at the entrances of both stores we visited this past weekend, which are just outside Wheat Ridge's city limits, were unambiguous. The ones on Target's entrance read: "Due to an emergency order, you must wear a face covering to enter this store."
On the afternoon we stopped by, this advisory was widely ignored. No Target workers were monitoring the entrance to limit capacity in order to ensure that patrons could remain six feet apart, the current minimum social-distancing standard, and while many shoppers tried to give others space, plenty more did not. Moreover, at least 30 percent of the customers — probably three dozen in total — wore no face coverings, with teens, twenty-somethings and dudes with an attitude leading the pack. In addition, one off-duty staff member had uncovered his nose and mouth and was walking around near the registers with his mask dangling from a tie wrapped around his ear.
At the Walmart, capacity was being monitored, with a staffer admitting people on a one-in, one-out basis, as was the case at the Aurora branch that had been closed a week earlier after public-health officials declared an outbreak. However, he allowed entry to anyone whether they were wearing a mask or not, and at least half of the customers were not. The result was by far the lowest rate of mask use we saw at any store we stopped by over the weekend, including two other Walmarts.
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Moreover, while all of the employees we saw at the Walmart had masks, many weren't using them. In the electronics department, for instance, we saw three young staffers talking in a tight circle, mere inches apart, with their masks beneath their chins.
Will this kind of thing be allowed in Denver? Almost certainly. While the city's new public-health order calls for mandatory mask-wearing in stores by both employees and customers, with a potential $999 fine listed as the maximum possible punishment for an infraction, City Attorney Kristin Bronson said during a May 5 press conference that enforcement is unlikely as long as businesses make at least a cursory nod to compliance. In her words, "If you go to a store and the vast majority are wearing face coverings, customers are asked to wear face coverings, employees have been trained and there's signage, that would be a good-faith effort."
What we saw at the two stores fits this description. Whether it constitutes the type of behavior that public-health experts think is necessary to stem the tide of the COVID-19 pandemic is another question.
Correction: The original version of this post identified the Walmart and Target stores as being in Wheat Ridge (as Target's own website does), when both are outside city limits. We regret the error.