In the seven-plus weeks since Governor Jared Polis formally recommended that state residents wear face coverings in public to combat the spread of COVID-19 — shortly before the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did likewise for the nation as a whole — masks have become politically divisive, despite the fact that the virus is an equal-opportunity infection.
Following the lead of President Donald Trump, who refuses to be photographed wearing a face covering, a certain breed of Colorado ideologue now looks upon anyone whose nose and mouth aren't open to the elements as a veritable traitor conspiring to destroy capitalism and the American Way.
As evidence, we offer our trip to Colorado Springs, the state's acknowledged capital of conservatism, over Memorial Day weekend. During the hour or so we spent in the heart of that city's downtown section — the shops, stores and restaurants lining the streets surrounding iconic Acacia Park — employees at retail businesses wore masks, but the overwhelming majority of folks strolling the streets did not.
By our estimate, the use of face coverings by the general public was south of 10 percent. Moreover, it seemed that most of those going mask-free didn't even have one available to put on, should they encounter a situation where they couldn't ensure a six-foot gap between themselves and the next person. Not that much social distancing was happening, either. Over and over again, we saw people from separate groups walking near each other without apparent acknowledgment that doing so put them and, by extension, their loved ones at potential risk.
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The lack of mask buy-in among the Colorado Springs citizenry is particularly worrisome given the size of the community. It's the state's second-largest city and the 39th most populous in the United States. According to this list that works off U.S. Census Bureau statistics, it has more residents than Miami, Florida; Minneapolis, Minnesota; New Orleans, Louisiana; Honolulu, Hawaii; Long Beach, California; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Madison, Wisconsin.
Nonetheless, El Paso County, which Colorado Springs anchors, isn't a current COVID-19 hot spot. A New York Times monitoring tool shows that the county currently has the sixth-highest number of cases and deaths in the state (1,581 and 89, respectively), but its case rate of 230 per 100,000 is in the middle of the pack and lower than might be expected given its size.
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These statistics may have convinced many Colorado Springs residents that either COVID-19 isn't a big deal, or that preventative efforts are actually pointless measures intended mainly to make the weak-minded feel better.
Whatever the case, Springs dwellers in every demographic category seem to have decided that face coverings aren't worth their time — not just groups of teen boys, who are the least likely to don masks in Denver, too, but families with young children freely mingling together, young men and women, older men and women, and so on.
Granted, we weren't subject to outright hostility for wearing a mask. No one shouted us down or muttered insults as we passed by; the worst we experienced was the occasional side-eye glance. But there were also plenty of times when people without masks walked straight toward us, forcing us to move to the side in order to maintain social distancing — because they sure as hell had no intention of doing so.
With cases declining statewide, El Paso County may not experience rising deaths because of this behavior — at least not during this wave of the infection. But its overall attitude toward face coverings could mask tensions between those of opposing political persuasions at a time when everyone should be setting such differences aside.