At his August 4 press conference about COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis suggested that decreasing case counts were likely related to recent policy changes, including a statewide mask mandate, which he said had improved the rate of facial-covering usage from percentages in the high 70s to north of 90.
But buy-in on masks continues to vary widely across the broad tapestry that is Colorado, as witnessed on our August 1 visit to Sterling, a community with just over 13,000 residents on the state's eastern plains. It's the largest town in Logan County, which a few months back was Colorado's hottest spot when it came to the novel coronavirus. Yet the number of facial coverings we came across in public places and at major retail outlets was the lowest since our July 4 trip to Grand Junction, the city the virus forgot.
Fewer than half the people we saw in Sterling wore masks.
Logan County's time in the COVID-19 red zone was closely linked to an outbreak at the Sterling Correctional Facility, the largest in the state in April. The April 29 outbreak report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment counted 241 positive tests among inmates at the facility, plus two more probable resident cases and eleven positive staff cases — and in the days that followed, authorities announced the death of an 86-year-old inmate from the disease. Three months later, the July 29 outbreak roundup from the CDPHE still lists the Sterling investigation as active, and the numbers are much higher: 564 positive resident cases, three resident deaths, 38 positive staff cases,\ and one probable staff case.
The data is better for those living outside the prison. The latest New York Times report on COVID-19 in Colorado places Logan County at just above average for infections in the state, with an average daily case count of 0.3, or 1.3 positive tests per 100,000 people.
Have these results bred a certain complacency in Sterling? Not at the local McDonald's, where every person we encountered was masked and taking care to social-distance, in part because of careful enforcement — an echo of protocols we recently witnessed in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where corporations were stricter about masks than state authorities.
Still, good intentions don't always produce the best results, as we saw at the local Walmart. Most branches of the giant corporation we've visited lately have stationed an employee at the main entrance with extra masks to give to those without one — and that was the case at the Sterling store, too. But about half of the customers dispensed with their facial covering as soon as they gained admittance, despite Walmart's mandatory mask policy for shoppers and staffers alike.
Social distancing wasn't a thing, either. At the front counters, unmasked patrons from different groups were chatting amiably just a foot or two away from each other, and plenty of Walmart workers with face coverings worn beneath their nose, where they do no good, were taking part in the conversations, too.
The situation was even more extreme at the Sterling Home Depot. We didn't spot a single person in the lumber yard with a face covering, and in the main store, the percentage was lower than 50 percent — a far cry from outlets in the Denver area, which have seen significant improvement since mid-May.
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Likewise, few employees at stores in downtown Sterling wore masks. Among the uncovered was the owner of a shop that had multiple signs in the front window reading "Trump 2020." But many businesses were closed on the Saturday of our tour, and foot traffic was minimal — an indication of the economic toll that COVID-19 has taken on towns small and large in Colorado.
The busiest spot in the area was Logan County Courthouse Square, where the Sterling Lions Club was celebrating its 100th anniversary with an outdoor get-together, complete with multiple food booths and a stage for live music. Around a hundred people had gathered there, and most of them, including the servers and many seniors, were mask-free. The number of facial coverings could be counted on one hand, and social interactions took place in close quarters, without any apparent concession to a little thing we call the pandemic.
Polis's policies seem to have led to overall gains in Colorado's COVID-19 battle. But if he visits Sterling, he should expect to see plenty of unencumbered noses and mouths.