This Is What Shopping in Metro Denver Looks Like Now

Crowds were heavy at Denver Premium Outlets on March 6.
Crowds were heavy at Denver Premium Outlets on March 6. Photo by Michael Roberts
With the majority of counties in the state now operating at Level Blue on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's dial dashboard, many restaurants and businesses now have greater leeway over capacity limits. But Governor Jared Polis and public-health officials continue to say that COVID-19 remains prevalent across Colorado, and that another wave of infection could hit if residents don't follow safety protocols such as mask usage, physical distancing and avoiding gatherings with people from different households.

The disparity between these messages is exacerbated by the decision of numerous states to ease restrictions. Neighboring Wyoming has announced that it will lift its mask mandate on March 16, with bars, restaurants and theaters there allowed to start operating in pre-March 2020 mode over the coming weeks.

On March 6, a year and a day after Colorado's first case of the novel coronavirus was confirmed on March 5, 2020, we set out to see what shopping is like in metro Denver today. Our target was Denver Premium Outlets in Thornton, a giant complex located just off Interstate 25 that attracts customers from along the Front Range as well as Wyoming. And the distinctions between those still in pandemic-period mode and people who are already acting as if everything's back to normal were plentiful.

click to enlarge The parking lot of Denver Premium Outlets was jam-packed last Saturday. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The parking lot of Denver Premium Outlets was jam-packed last Saturday.
Photo by Michael Roberts
It was a gorgeous, spring-like day, and the bright sunshine and moderate temperatures had attracted a throng to the complex. The parking lot was packed to the point where drivers had to follow patrons carrying bags back to their vehicles in order to secure a spot. As a result of so much humanity descending on a single location at the same time, the faux-streets serving as walkways for the center were frequently jammed. Governor Jared Polis had just extended the state's mask mandate for another thirty days, but at least 25 percent of those present (the overwhelming majority of them men) had their facial coverings lowered.

There's no mystery why: In promoting mask usage shortly after COVID-19 struck, authorities stressed that outdoors was safer than indoors, and that advice translated to the idea that nose-and-mouth coverings are unnecessary if there's no roof overhead, even if others are close enough to brush shoulders as they pass.

Then there's the food-and-beverage exception. Lots of folks at the outlets clearly felt that if they had a drink or snack in their hand, their mask could be on their chin no matter whether they were staying in one place or strolling in close proximity to fellow consumers. At times, dozens of unmasked people were gathered in courtyard areas — and physical distancing was hardly being strictly enforced.

click to enlarge The Nike Store at Denver Premium Outlets was still limiting capacity, but it was among the few retailers doing so on March 6. - PHOTO BY MICHAEL ROBERTS
The Nike Store at Denver Premium Outlets was still limiting capacity, but it was among the few retailers doing so on March 6.
Photo by Michael Roberts
As for the businesses themselves, a few — Nike, most prominently — continued to strictly monitor the number of shoppers allowed inside under corporate mandates that were established months ago. But most stores let people enter without a wait in line. We didn't see anyone inside a shop without a mask — but whether it actually covered their nostrils was another matter.

Most people we saw were cognizant of maintaining at least some space around them, but a distance of three feet was more typical than six. Still, we witnessed no examples of tension aimed at those who were or weren't acting as if COVID-19 is still a thing. Most people just seemed thrilled to be out of the house and in the company of others.

Scenes like these will become even more common if ongoing vaccinations effectively keep the disease at bay and rising variants don't create new spikes. Saturday at Denver Premium Outlets represented a transitional stage — but to what we're transitioning remains a blend of uncertainty and hope.
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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