Coronavirus

No Repercussions for Ignoring COVID Mask Rules at Four Denver-Area Malls

A sad, lonely Santa at Southwest Plaza on December 3.
A sad, lonely Santa at Southwest Plaza on December 3. Photo by Michael Roberts
On November 24, Denver, Jefferson, Arapahoe and Adams counties joined Boulder County in instituting new public-health orders related to the fight against COVID-19. The mask-and-vax mandate, which will remain in effect in these municipalities through at least January 3, calls for either face coverings to be worn in all public indoor spaces or for a business to arrange with authorities to require proof of vaccination for entry.

Compliance with this mandate was spotty in many locations over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, but both Jefferson County Public Health and the Tri-County Health Department, which oversees such matters in Arapahoe and Adams counties, expressed confidence that buy-in would improve over time.

To test this theory, we visited five Denver-area malls on December 3 and 4: Jeffco's Southwest Plaza and Colorado Mills, Arapahoe County's Town Center at Aurora, and Denver's Cherry Creek Shopping Center, as well as FlatIron Crossing in Broomfield County, where the mask mandate only covers buildings owned by the city and county.

Before visiting, we'd reached out to management at each mall to learn about their approach to the new regulations. The only response we received was from Town Center of Aurora's Alexis Watts. "At Town Center at Aurora, the health and safety of our guests, retailers and employees is our top priority," she says. "We ask all guests to conduct themselves in a safe and respectful way in accordance with our Code of Conduct and all laws and local ordinances. In the continued need to address the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the town center has proactively implemented additions to the Code of Conduct, effective until further notice. Please refer to the Code of Conduct posted at the town center and available online here for more information. Our already rigorous disinfectant and cleaning practices will also continue many times per day, including periodically disinfecting areas most susceptible to the spread of germs. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer dispensers are located in highly trafficked areas and walkways for public use. Town Center at Aurora remains committed to providing a safe and enjoyable shopping experience for everyone."

Town Center happened to be the only mall where we saw security guards — two uniformed men standing around talking with paper masks on their chins. At none of the malls did we see personnel encouraging unmasked customers — of which there were many — to cover up, and we heard no announcements regarding masking. Mask use was generally much worse in the walkways and concourses of the malls than in the stores themselves, as if the common areas were the equivalent of the great outdoors, even though they were all under a roof.

Here's a brief compendium of what we saw:

Southwest Plaza

Just after noon on December 3, around a quarter of the patrons strolling through the center were unmasked. In contrast, masks were worn by all the employees we spotted in individual retail spaces, with the exception of a couple who didn't have any customers but had face coverings at the ready should any step inside.

The Southwest Plaza Santa (seen at the top of this post) was also unmasked — and could not have seemed lonelier.

Our first indication that customers seemed to think mask rules only applied to the stores? A couple walked unmasked along a walkway until reaching one shop, at which point they masked up.
click to enlarge An unmasked kiddie-train engineer at Colorado Mills on December 3. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
An unmasked kiddie-train engineer at Colorado Mills on December 3.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Colorado Mills

The number of unmasked customers at Colorado Mills on December 3 was greater than at Southwest Plaza — at least 30 percent. In addition, hardly any of the workers at kiosks in the main part of the mall wore face coverings, from those trying to lure customers to the kiddie-train engineer seen above. Most employees in the stores were masked, especially when shoppers were present, but there were a few exceptions.

Dick's Sporting Goods had a display with masks and sanitizer at one of its main entrances, and we saw a man without a face covering actually stop at it and put on a paper mask. How about that?
click to enlarge Department store signage at FlatIron Crossing encourages but doesn't mandate masking. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Department store signage at FlatIron Crossing encourages but doesn't mandate masking.
Photo by Michael Roberts
FlatIron Crossing

Because the Broomfield mall is so close to Boulder, which has had an indoor mask rule in place since September, we assumed that face coverings would be at least as prominent on December 3 as at Southwest Plaza and Colorado Mills, if not more.

We were wrong.

Signage on entrances stressed that people who are fully vaccinated could go mask-free, and plenty of folks took advantage of this option. At least half of the customers at the mall were unmasked, including many employees.
click to enlarge Many of the Town Center at Aurora kiosk employees were unmasked on December 3. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
Many of the Town Center at Aurora kiosk employees were unmasked on December 3.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Town Center at Aurora

The Aurora mall had a greater percentage of masked customers than FlatIron Crossing, but barely; probably four out of every ten shoppers left their nose and mouth exposed.

Once again, mask-wearing was more prevalent in stores than in the common areas, where very few kiosk employees bothered to cover up.
click to enlarge The Louis Vitton outlet at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center limited capacity on Saturday, December 4. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The Louis Vitton outlet at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center limited capacity on Saturday, December 4.
Photo by Michael Roberts
Cherry Creek Shopping Center

On December 4, around a third of the customers we saw were unmasked, and of around thirty children cavorting at the play area, we saw a grand total of three wearing masks. That mirrored a phenomenon we witnessed at all the mall: Children older than two are supposed to don face coverings, but few under elementary-school age did so. The overwhelming majority of parents watching their kids race around were unmasked, too.

On the other hand, two stores we saw were implementing safety protocols on par with those that were commonplace during year one of the pandemic: the Apple Store, which had an employee out front with a box of masks from which she supplied bare-faced guests, and the Louis Vuitton outlet, where both masking and capacity limits were being utilized.

And unlike the Santa at Southwest Plaza, the Jolly Old Elf at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center wore a face shield that would be less obvious in photos than a mask. It was better than nothing.
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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