COVID-19 Safety Mess at Denver-Area Walmart

Outside the Walmart at 6675 Business Center Drive in Highlands Ranch.
Outside the Walmart at 6675 Business Center Drive in Highlands Ranch. Google Maps
Following our post published yesterday, May 4, about a weekend visit to an Aurora Walmart previously linked to three COVID-19 deaths, including that of a full-time employee, we received an email from a Walmart spokesperson, who politely but firmly informed us that the company is "not allowing media inside at this time," as if America ended at the store's front door.

This response was surprising, given that our piece lavished praise on the Walmart in question, located at 14000 East Exposition, for tightening up mask use and social distancing in a major way following a temporary closure after public-health officials identified it as one of the state's 157 current outbreak sites. Presumably, however, I was the irresponsible one, for not wearing a fedora with a card reading "Press" tucked into the hat band, so that employees could have promptly identified and expelled me.

But if I was persona non grata, can you guess who wasn't? Dozens of unmasked customers at the Walmart at 6675 Business Center Drive in Highlands Ranch, which we stopped by immediately after our meander through the Aurora store. They were admitted despite a sign at the entrance warning that "per state/local order, it is required that customers wear facial covering, excluding persons who have difficulty breathing."

This wasn't the only way that the Highlands Ranch operation fell short of the standard set by the Aurora store, which authorities have kept under close scrutiny, suggesting that when it comes to COVID-19 safety, all Walmarts definitely aren't created equal.

The Highlands Ranch Walmart is located in Douglas County, among the few local jurisdictions that didn't extend its stay-at-home order after Colorado Governor Jared Polis announced that the state's version would expire on April 26; it was replaced by the so-called Safer at Home program, which phased in reopenings of non-essential businesses, with patrons allowed on site at most retail shops as of May 4.

click to enlarge A sign on display outside the Walmart in Highlands Ranch. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
A sign on display outside the Walmart in Highlands Ranch.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Of course, Walmarts have been open throughout the stay-at-home period, since food sales were designated critical. But after the Aurora outbreak Walmart opened up again, the store limited the number of customers inside, stationing employees at the front doors who were charged with following a strict one-in, one-out approach. The result during our May 2 visit was plenty of room for six-foot social distancing, made easier by a plentiful supply of floor stickers showing folks where to stand in order to allow safe access for all.

That wasn't the case in Highlands Ranch. No crew members were on duty at the entrance, so customers could enter whenever they they wished — and it wasn't because the store was so empty that monitoring capacity was unnecessary. Indeed, easily twice the number of shoppers admitted to the Aurora store were inside this one, making it all but impossible to stay six feet away from everyone.

And whereas we didn't spot a single customer in Aurora without a face covering, there definitely was no shortage of such scofflaws in Highlands Ranch. We counted more than thirty of them in just a few minutes, and they broke down in now-familiar demographic categories of those likeliest to reject mask use: teens and twenty-somethings of both genders (but particularly young men), as well as a scattering of (mostly) dudes age fifty or above. Another common sight: Families in which Mom and the kids were wearing masks but Dad wasn't, probably to prove that he's stronger than any virus, damn it!

All of the Walmart employees we saw had masks (as was the case in Aurora), but a couple of workers had arranged them to leave their nose and/or mouth uncovered for reasons that didn't seem to have anything to do with breathing difficulties — and defeated the purpose of donning face coverings in the first place.

There were no apparent repercussions for these choices. Unless you were a member of the media, that is.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts