When Governor Jared Polis imposed a statewide mask order on July 16 in an attempt to diminish the spread of COVID-19, he said he'd taken the action in part because of studies showing that the use of facial coverings is higher in places with such a mandate.
There is no such mandate in Wyoming. During a July 25 visit to Cheyenne, the largest city in the state (at a population of around 60,000) that's just across Colorado's northern border, mask usage was similar to that in Denver in early April, when Polis first recommended that facial coverings be worn — a suggestion that led to only modest compliance at first.
The city should have been bustling during our time in town. Cheyenne Frontier Days 2020, its biggest annual event and most reliable revenue generator, had been scheduled to run for ten days beginning on July 17. But owing to the novel coronavirus, the extravaganza had been canceled, leaving plenty of elbow room downtown. Social distancing clearly wasn't a problem.
Masks were another matter.
Perhaps 30 percent of the people we encountered in a slew of settings in Cheyenne had masks with them, and a smaller percentage bothered using them to cover their nose and mouth. The strictest enforcement of mask usage we saw was at a handful of chain stores following national policy as best they could. But at one store, a number of customers foiled this edict by wearing a face covering while walking through the front doors, then ditching it immediately thereafter.
In some independent businesses, every staffer wore a mask. In others, none did, with the most eye-popping example being the guy behind the counter at a music store, who was energetically vaping when we entered — creating a visible cloud of droplets that floated well over six feet from his yap.
Not that any of these workers were breaking the law. Although Wyoming has no statewide mask order, the wearing of face coverings is recommended by the state health department, particularly for patrons of salons and other personal-care businesses. Likewise, employees at gyms, restaurants, bars and the like are required to wear masks when they're within six feet of customers or co-workers.
These lax regulations haven't resulted in an explosion of COVID-19. The latest stats show 2,072 confirmed cases and 448 probable cases for the entire state (albeit a state with under 600,000 residents). The death count currently stands at 25; three are attributed to Laramie County, where Cheyenne is located.
Still, Wyoming's curve is definitely on the rise, with the number of estimated new daily cases hitting its all-time peak on July 24, with 36.64. On July 27, the most recent date available, the estimate was 34.86.
If the rise troubled those strolling the corridors of Frontier Mall, the city's largest indoor center, they haven't translated to mask-wearing. The overwhelming majority of shoppers had no barrier between their nostrils and the world beyond.
Mask use by employees at the mall was higher than in shops downtown, however, particularly at Victoria's Secret and Bed Bath & Beyond, where staffers were stationed at entrances to make sure that the faces of customers were properly covered before anyone was allowed admittance.
Wyoming politicians may not care if someone was wearing a mask, but corporations worried about liability certainly do.
Walmart was stricter than the state when it came to masks, too. Like many Denver-area stores in the chain, the Cheyenne branch we visited had assigned an employee to serve as a facial-covering gatekeeper. He was armed with a passel of disposable masks and handed them out to those who didn't have one.
But possessing a mask didn't necessarily translate to wearing one. Around 10 percent of the customers we saw inside the store had removed their face covering as soon as possible in what appeared to be an act of defiance.
Governor Polis has repeatedly said that masks aren't ideological — a sure sign that for many people, they most certainly are. And there's no denying that Wyoming is among the most conservative states in the country.
Right now, that's as obvious as the uncovered noses of Cheyenne residents.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.