Something's Fishy About Mask Mandate Enforcement at Downtown Aquarium

The Downtown Aquarium is part restaurant, part aquarium.
The Downtown Aquarium is part restaurant, part aquarium. Stilfehler at wikivoyage
A Downtown Aquarium employee got an unexpected gift this Christmas: a COVID-19 infection that she attributes to her workplace’s lax enforcement of Denver’s mask mandate, which was just extended to February 3.

“It's terrifying, because they literally don't care,” says the employee of Landry’s, the massive Texas-based restaurant company that owns and operates the Downtown Aquarium, which started out as Colorado's Ocean Journey over thirty years ago and today is an "entertainment and dining complex" with a full-service restaurant and bar as well as underwater exhibits featuring 500 species,

When the Denver County mask mandate was originally announced on November 24, management sent an email to employees saying that the aquarium would require reservations and masks, as it had at the start of the pandemic. “Please do not worry about policing the policy," it advised. "If you need to ask someone kindly to wear a mask and they get upset, just let it be or contact a manager, please do not put yourself into a bad situation."

But a bad situation got worse when unmasked parties arrived, says the employee, who asked to remain anonymous, citing retaliation against other workers who have spoken out; she sent emails and photographs to Westword to back up her statements.

“Even when you try to explain it to guests, they never want to believe that the rule applies to them, which really sucks, because then we're fighting on both sides and we get no support from management,” she notes.

On several occasions when unmasked patrons didn't respond to a request that they cover up, floor employees called management for backup, as they were instructed to do in the email — but management did not attempt to ask those patrons to put on masks or support the employee’s desire to encourage masking, she says.

Only four signs in the 100,000-plus-square-foot facility announce the mandate, including one at the entrance where people can buy tickets. After employees asked for more signage throughout the exhibit floor, the company added a sign at the stingray reef. “It’s a very small, overly worded sign that no one is going to look at, no one is going to read, because [Landry’s doesn't] want to actually appear to be enforcing this,” the employee says.
click to enlarge The sign that aquarium management placed at the stingray reef after requests from employees. - AQUARIUM EMPLOYEE
The sign that aquarium management placed at the stingray reef after requests from employees.
Aquarium Employee
The City of Denver offers resources for businesses, including pre-made signage and guidance on how to implement mask mandates. Landry's made its own.

“The aquarium is in compliance with the mandate at this time with having the signs posted on all the doors," a manager emailed employees after some complained. "At this time we made the decision [to] protect the staff from having to get into an uncomfortable situation by asking our staff to not actively approach guests on the subject. We don’t want you to be put into a situation that turns into a confrontation.”

After working a shift on December 22, the employee went home, where she lives alone and observes what she describes as a "low-risk" lifestyle; she stayed there until December 24, when she started experiencing symptoms. On Christmas morning, a test confirmed a positive COVID diagnosis.

This is at least the third time a floor employee has contracted COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic, the employee says; she attributes part of the problem to the company’s insistence on employees making sure that their shifts are covered.

A sign at the box office informs employees that they are not permitted to call in sick without a doctor’s note (a positive at-home test is not sufficient); if they do, they will get a warning, and after three warnings, they will be fired. If they have COVID, they must use their personal sick leave or go without pay if they do not have leave days left, says the employee with COVID.
click to enlarge A sign in the aquarium box office with instructions about calling in sick. - AQUARIUM EMPLOYEE
A sign in the aquarium box office with instructions about calling in sick.
Aquarium Employee
According to another employee who asked to remain anonymous, she and several co-workers have reported the aquarium to OSHA's whistleblower program for unsafe COVID-19 practices several times. She says they were told that some of their concerns fell under the purview of the Department of Labor rather than OSHA.

Workers can also reach out to the City of Denver. "If employees feel their employer isn’t following the new public-health order (PHO)/face-covering mandate, they can file a complaint through the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) website by going to the 'Report a Violation' tab and filling out the form, or by emailing their complaint with details to [email protected]," according to the city's health department. "Our goal with the face-covering order is ultimately compliance, and DDPHE works with local businesses to make sure they understand what is required of them under the PHO. Complaints regarding the PHO are evaluated and investigated. A written warning (aka an 'order') may be issued if DDPHE investigators find that a business is not adhering to the PHO. If compliance is still not followed after the written warning, then an administrative citation, along with a fine, may be issued."

So far, the city has issued 143 orders and two citations; each citation carries a $999 fine. No order has been issued against the Downtown Aquarium.

"Our primary concern is always for the safety of our employees and guests," Tim Kaliher, vice president ans COO of the aquarium, said in a statement provided to Westword. "We have and will continue to follow all state and local COVID-19 guidelines at Downtown Aquarium. In addition to requiring our employees and guests to wear masks, we have mask mandate signage posted at every entry point on property."

But is that enough? "Aquarium management has repeatedly stated that we are not enforcing the mask policy and that it’s too exhausting to try," says the employee. "Unfortunately, it’s also pretty exhausting to have COVID.”

This story has been updated to include information from the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment.
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Catie Cheshire is a staff writer at Westword. After getting her undergraduate degree at Regis University, she went to Arizona State University for a master's degree. She missed everything about Denver -- from the less-intense sun to the food, the scenery and even the bus system. Now she's reunited with Denver and writing news for Westword.
Contact: Catie Cheshire