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Mask use and social distancing were spotty on the Pearl Street Mall on August 22.
Mask use and social distancing were spotty on the Pearl Street Mall on August 22.
Photo by Michael Roberts

COVID-19: Why Out-of-Staters May Cause CU Boulder Outbreaks

Will Colorado's currently promising COVID-19 statistics remain stable even as students of all ages begin returning to school?

That's among the most pressing questions related to the ongoing fight against the novel coronavirus, especially at the University of Colorado Boulder, which already experienced an outbreak among one group of athletes before the return of the student body as a whole.

We visited Boulder on Saturday, August 22, and while mask usage and social distancing were quite strong on the campus, that wasn't always the case at other popular gathering spots, including the Pearl Street Mall and the shopping and entertainment area known as the Hill, as well as the adjacent neighborhood where the majority of the university's fraternities and sororities are located.

Mask usage was strong on the CU Boulder campus on August 22. Social distancing? Not so much.
Mask usage was strong on the CU Boulder campus on August 22. Social distancing? Not so much.
Photo by Michael Roberts

Overall, the community's response to COVID-19 guidelines from public health officials looked significantly worse than during a visit to Boulder in mid-April, when students were gone and full-time Boulderites demonstrated a higher degree of buy-in to Governor Jared Polis's mask-use recommendation than residents of other metro areas we visited during that period.

Our theory: Students returning to Boulder are now bringing the comparatively loose mask culture and iffy concern about safety protocols in their respective home towns to Boulder, thereby increasing the risk of viral spread that could lead to scattered quarantines and, in a worst-case scenario, a shift to online-only instruction.

We're not putting the blame for this scenario solely on young people who shrug off the disease, figuring it won't seriously affect them, because the lax attitudes we spotted were frequently a multi-generational affair. The rolling move-in process at the school was going strong this past weekend, and we saw entire families in town to help unpack a kid ignoring the public mask order, suggesting that many of the students are simply following the lead of their who-gives-a-damn parents.

At least most of these fraternity members had masks with them, even if they weren't wearing them.
At least most of these fraternity members had masks with them, even if they weren't wearing them.
Photo by Deb Roberts

Such clans were among the few groups on the CU Boulder grounds that weren't following the advice of medical experts. Signage and distancing markers were everywhere, and around 80 percent of the students we saw walking between buildings or inside the University Memorial Center were masked and seemingly cognizant about not encroaching on the personal space of others. Approximately half of the cyclists wore face coverings, too — a much higher number than is common in most local recreational areas.

We didn't see campus police officers or other security personnel enforcing these edicts. Students simply seemed to understand the expectation that anyone on campus needed to don facial coverings and avoid invading the bubbles of strangers.

Clearly, administration messaging is getting through — for now, anyway.

More unmasked August 22 Pearl Street Mall pedestrians.
More unmasked August 22 Pearl Street Mall pedestrians.
Photo by Michael Roberts

The story on the Hill was very different. Probably six of every ten people filling sidewalks around the businesses there were proudly displaying their noses and mouths, only covering them when going into a shop that required a mask. And in and around the frats and sororities, that number rose to eight bare faces out of ten. If this same ratio is maintained during parties that absolutely are happening on a regular basis, calls from contact tracers could well follow.

The Pearl Street Mall looked less like a flashback to the pre-COVID-19 days. Around 40 percent of those on hand skipped masks, with most of them traveling in packs — some including moms, dads and younger siblings, others dominated by teens and early-twenty-somethings. And at street crossings, folks were often shoulder to shoulder whether their mugs were cloaked or not.

Scenes like these will definitely resonate if CU Boulder has to go completely virtual in another month or so.

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