The Larimer County community desperately needs visitor dollars to boost its economy going into winter, when fewer folks are able to easily access its scenic splendor. But because potential customers come from so many different places — whether out of town, out of state or out of the country — mask usage varies widely. And who wants to don facial coverings on vacation, anyway?
This dynamic was on display when we visited Estes Park on Saturday, October 10. For the most part, businesses worked hard to make sure that patrons were masked and following safety protocols while inside. But the use of facial coverings was much more intermittent outside, even though crowds moving up and down the sidewalks or waiting to get inside the most appealing businesses made social distancing tough, increasing the odds that unmasked individuals, or those who still haven't figured out the right way to put the damn things on, might be standing next to each other for minutes at a time.
If you're headed to Estes Park this weekend hoping for a last glimpse of autumn color before the final leaves fall, or just to stroll along Elkhorn Avenue, the community's charming main drag, be prepared for what you're likely to discover.
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Even before we entered the town's shopping district, we saw throngs of folks turning toward Lake Estes, and we soon discovered why: A sizable herd of elk had gathered alongside and even in the water, practically begging to be included in a new photo gallery.
Near this adorable creature feature, we passed by a large playground at which children ranging from toddlers to elementary-schoolers mingled freely, as did their parents. Some had masks. Most didn't.
The situation for elk watchers was similar but less problematic, given the vast amount of space around the lake. Groups gave each other room, resulting in a risk-free way to check out some of the area's most renowned residents. But distance was less evident on nearby athletic fields, adjacent to where we parked. We happened upon several youth baseball teams posing shoulder-to-shoulder for what appeared to be end-of-season photos as their proud parents looked on, with nary a mask in sight.
From there, we headed to the iconic Stanley Hotel, where safety was generally stellar. A few visitors going through the shrubbery maze constructed a few years back to echo scenes in author Stephen King's The Shining had ditched their facial covering, but they all kept their distance. And inside the lobby and other public areas, we didn't see a single mask scofflaw.
Over on Elkhorn, the walkways were busy in most places and jammed in others, with lines outside assorted businesses contributing to the traffic. While many major retailers in Denver seem to have given up on monitoring stores lately, this practice remained in place at several of Estes Park's most popular joints, including Brownfield's Souvenirs & Outdoor Gear, where an employee with an iPad acted as a cheerful gatekeeper.
Other shops let anyone interested walk through the door, and it was hard to begrudge the managers this decision: They need to make money while they can to stay solvent through the chilly season to come. That left customers in the position of deciding whether they felt comfortable getting up close and personal with so many others with the same idea. But at least all of them were masked; we didn't see anyone inside a store without one.
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Whether they were wearing them correctly was another matter. One store displayed a photo of a dude with his mask worn under his nose at the end of an arrow originating from the all-capped word "WRONG," but the message apparently didn't get through.
The biggest throngs congregated at corners, waiting for walk signs that seemed to take forever to change. Because most people continued to wear masks outdoors, many of these waits weren't very problematic. But the decision to use facial coverings tended to correspond to groups and/or families, with all of the members either donning or skipping them. (The photo at the top of this post is an example of the latter.)
As we were waiting for the opportunity to cross a side street on the way back to our car, I wound up standing beside a guy who was wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers T-shirt almost identical to the one I had on, and he initiated a lengthy conversation about the squad's chances in the upcoming Major League Baseball playoffs. He wasn't wearing a mask, and neither was the couple a few steps ahead of us in Harley-Davidson togs — and to add to the fun, the female half of the pair was vaping.
At least the huge plumes she was emitting let us know how far her droplets were traveling — regularly more than six feet. And the views beyond were gorgeous. That's life in a Colorado tourist town circa 2020.