In Douglas County, Not Wearing Masks Indoors Is a White People Problem

Photo by Kayla Speid on Unsplash
Douglas County is seen as a bastion of anti-mask sentiment in Colorado during the latest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic — but not everyone who lives, works, plays and shops there gets apoplectic at the thought of wearing a face covering at public settings indoors, as currently recommended by both the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

On a visit to the Outlets at Castle Rock, one of Dougco's largest retail complexes, on August 28, we found that most patrons and employees of color wore masks inside, while the overwhelming majority of Caucasian customers didn't.

On this date and at this place, at least, not wearing masks indoors was a white people problem.

Data from the 2020 U.S. Census reveals that 70.7 percent of Coloradans — or 4,082,927 of the 5,573,714 individuals who lived here as of April 1, 2020 — are labeled "white alone." But as noted in our recent post about the whitest counties in Colorado, Douglas County exceeds the average; it's the state's seventh-whitest, with 80.7 percent of its residents grouped as "white alone." Of the remaining portion of the county's citizenry, 9.5 percent identifies as Hispanic or Latino and 1.4 percent as Black or African-American; the rest is divided among other ethnicities or individuals whose ancestry includes two or more races.

According to the state health department's COVID-19 dial dashboard, Douglas County is at Level Red as of August 30, with a two-week cumulative incidence rate of 383.3. Moreover, a recent agency report confirmed officially designated outbreaks at four schools in Douglas County — and as of last week, the data dashboard maintained by the Douglas County School District revealed a total of 23 schools with enough cases to qualify for outbreak status. Yet the three Douglas County commissioners — Abe Laydon, George Teal and Lora Thomas — voted to skip masking requirements for students in preschool through sixth grade.

The COVID-19 guidance metrics page on the website of the Tri-County Health Department, whose jurisdiction has traditionally included Douglas County, now includes a note that reads: "The framework for these criteria pertain to Adams and Arapahoe counties. Douglas County has opted out of the TCHD public health order."

The Douglas County School District defied the commissioners' position and is still requiring students younger than twelve to don facial coverings indoors. However, there's currently no indoor mask mandate for adults in the county — or anywhere in Colorado, for that matter. Wearing masks is a matter of personal choice.

At the Outlets of Castle Rock on Saturday, the number of people choosing to do so was higher than it's been in months — 30 percent or more, in the dozen or so stores we visited. But there was a clear distinction between ethnic groups. At Sketchers, for instance, all of the employees were masked, as were six of the seven customers of color. Of the ten white patrons we saw, only one wore a face covering.

Percentages were similar in store after store.

Why? There are no definitive answers to that question, even though statistics show definitively that people of color have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 in terms of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. But easy assumptions often prove incorrect. For instance, while Douglas County is among the most conservative places in Colorado, the CDPHE's vaccine data dashboard shows that an impressive 75.6 percent of the populace has received at least one dose.

Whether that's enough to protect Douglas County residents despite the rise of the Delta variant is unclear. But on Saturday at the Castle Rock outlets, the overwhelming majority of white people were willing to take the risk of leaving their nose and mouth uncovered indoors, while most people of color weren't.
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