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Comparing COVID-19 Safety at Two Metro Malls in Level Red Zones

Customers at Denver-area malls continue to walk in common areas without masks if they have purchased snacks or drinks rather than staying in designated dining areas.EXPAND
Customers at Denver-area malls continue to walk in common areas without masks if they have purchased snacks or drinks rather than staying in designated dining areas.
Photo by Michael Roberts

Beginning tomorrow, November 20, both Denver and Jefferson counties will enter Level Red (Severe) on the dial dashboard created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as a tool to fight the spread of COVID-19. That's the highest category short of the new Level Purple (Extreme), which requires the closure of all retail stores not deemed essential. Under Level Red, such businesses can stay open, but must remain under 50 percent capacity.

In anticipation of the move to Level Red, we visited major shopping centers in two counties — Denver's Cherry Creek mall and Jeffco's Colorado Mills — this past Saturday, November 14, to see how each was doing in terms of recommended safety protocols before they move into the Red zone.

We found plenty of positive signs, but also some examples of risky actions still happening more than eight months into a global pandemic that's already killed a quarter-million people in the United States and more than 2,300 in Colorado alone.

We entered the Cherry Creek Shopping Center through Nordstrom, where no one was monitoring entrants: Just come on in! That open-door policy appeared to be the case at all of the largest department stores at the mall. Either the number of customers was being counted electronically, or managers were operating under the assumption that the spaces are so vast that 50 percent capacity won't be exceeded until the holiday shopping season gets under way in earnest — and that period is just days away.

Clockwise from upper left: At the Cherry Creek mall, the Apple Store continued to set a high standard for entry; the Santa photo apparatus is up despite the pandemic; customers lined up outside Louis Vuitton.EXPAND
Clockwise from upper left: At the Cherry Creek mall, the Apple Store continued to set a high standard for entry; the Santa photo apparatus is up despite the pandemic; customers lined up outside Louis Vuitton.
Photos by Michael Roberts

Individual retailers — particularly high-end national chains that are undoubtedly wary of incurring liability — were much stricter about numbers. The Apple Store continues to be the gold standard, with patrons required to line up, wear masks and undergo temperature checks. The Peloton branch at Cherry Creek was taking temps, too — a smart idea, given that folks were likely to be clambering onto equipment rather than simply eyeballing products on shelves.

The overwhelming majority of customers in the mall wore facial coverings, though not always properly — and we saw slips across gender lines. During the first months of the statewide mask order, men were almost always the guilty parties when it came to leaving their nose (and sometimes their mouth) uncloaked, defeating the purpose of the items in an embarrassing way. But at Cherry Creek, we saw nearly as many women as men with their schnozz on display, contributing to the approximately 5 to 10 percent of customers there who still hadn't figured out how to wear masks correctly.

Another chronic mask issue involved people ordering snacks or drinks and then strolling the mall with their facial coverings down rather than staying in the food court or other designated eating areas. We spotted several folks walking around with soda cups while masks dangled from their ears. But what we didn't see were security guards letting them know that doing so was stupid, much less encouraging them to finish their food at a physically distanced table and mask up again before leaving the area.

And then there was Cherry Creek's giant set for photos with Santa — an activity that doesn't exactly seem danger-free, even if the Jolly Old Elf is entirely encased in personal protective equipment. Ho, ho, no.

Clockwise from upper left: Some of the corridors at Colorado Mills got crowded at times; high-touch, coin-operated attractions remained accessible; Target and Levi's maintained entry checkpoints.EXPAND
Clockwise from upper left: Some of the corridors at Colorado Mills got crowded at times; high-touch, coin-operated attractions remained accessible; Target and Levi's maintained entry checkpoints.
Photos by Michael Roberts

Christmas decor was already on view at Colorado Mills, too, as were the noses of quite a few women and men. Mask chin-strapping was even more prevalent at the Lakewood facility; at least 10 percent of customers desperately needed a facial covering tutorial.

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Bare-faced strolling and sipping was also more commonplace at Colorado Mills. But most concerning of all were those who weren't wearing masks at all. We saw five shoppers with no facial coverings during a half hour or so, all of them men, ranging from young adults — gleefully oblivious to the chances they were taking should they be breathing in the vicinity of older relatives anytime soon — to grizzled sorts who seemed to regard mask wearers as sheeple sucked in by the "radical" notion that science is real.

The children's play area at the Mills was off-limits, like Cherry Creek's. But high-touch, coin-operated attractions were still available for kids of all ages to use — and no staffers were around to disinfect them after use. What could possibly go wrong?

On the positive side, quite a few national retailers with shops at Colorado Mills were requiring customers to line up and wait before stepping inside. Outfits such as Levi's and Bath & Body Works have established mandates for their employees, and they appear to be working. But many local mom-and-pop stores can't afford to pay someone to serve as a COVID-19-era greeter, and must rely on customers to make the right choices.

If more shoppers fail to do so, these malls could find themselves shuttered again on the cusp of the Christmas buying season.

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