As a physician, Dr. P.J. Parmar knows masks effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As a business owner, Parmar knows masks alienate customers.
So at Mango House, a mall owned by Parmar on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, patients in his family clinic wear masks. People eating and shopping at the other businesses don’t have to. Parmar wishes it could be different, but ordering shoppers and diners to wear masks drives them away, he said.
“I run a mall where all the tenants are my patients and all of their customers are my patients. I know exactly what’s going on,” he said. “It makes it much easier on everybody if you let the government be the bad guy. Then you could just say, ‘Sorry, it’s the governor.’”
Nineteen months into the pandemic, Colorado businesses and their customers are tasked with making public health decisions as Gov. Jared Polis declines to reinstate a statewide mask mandate despite state and federal health experts’ advice that masks help prevent virus spread.
In the past, Polis stated the number of hospitalizations would be his guiding light for implementing virus-related mandates. But with fewer hospital beds available this week that at any point in the pandemic, Scott Bookman, the state’s COVID-19 incident commander, said Wednesday it is up to local policy makers to bring back mask mandates because counties across the state have different levels of transmission. He and other public health officials want businesses and restaurants to require masks to stem the spread.
As of Friday afternoon, more than 1,184 Coloradans were hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 and 95 were being evaluated for the virus.
But local governments, including Denver, also are reluctant to restore mask mandates.
Courtney Ronner, a spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Health, said officials continue to monitor case and hospitalization rates and use data to make public health decisions. There are no immediate plans to impose any mandates.
The lack of government action means business owners are forced into a tricky juggling act. They try to protect customers and employees from a contagious virus while trying not to polarize anyone or take action that destroys their bottom lines.
The inconsistency on policies — and enforcement — can be frustrating for the public, too, especially those who still worry about the virus harming them or their loved ones.
Kim Bierbrauer chose Denver’s Paramount Theatre for a family outing two weeks ago because the venue touted strict mask enforcement. However, when Bierbrauer, a 45-year-old cancer patient and mother of three, sat down for a comedy show, she realized she was surrounded by maskless patrons.
Frustrated and concerned that she was putting herself and her son, who is too young to be vaccinated, at risk, Bierbrauer approached a manager and asked why they promoted a mask mandate if they didn’t intend to enforce one. The manager, she said, explained that it was too difficult to enforce.
Although a representative from Paramount Theatre did not respond to a request for comment, the theater announced Wednesday starting Nov. 10, they will require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test result within 72 hours of the event.
“In situations where we don’t know people’s vaccine statuses and littles are not eligible yet to be vaccinated, I wish we could all just share some sense of humanity and protect each other because I would like to hope that people think my life and my child’s life is as important as theirs,” Bierbrauer said. “When we don’t know the vaccinate status of people around us, I would rather take that extra precaution of wearing a mask.”
With cold weather coming and COVID-19 hospitalizations rising, the owners of Bonanno Concepts figured it was only a matter of time before another new mandate or policy was instated. Rather than try to adjust on the fly, the owners created their own rule — vaccines for all employees and customers at their nine Denver restaurant locations.
“You feel so helpless with COVID and sometimes it feels like there’s nothing you can do. But it’s something we can do in our small corner of the world,” Jessica Kinney, Bonanno’s director of people, said. “Let’s think a few steps down the road to where we’ve been before but let’s just jump to it.”
The response, so far, is positive, Kinney said. Just seven of the company’s nearly 400 employees quit over it, and each restaurant averages about one party per night that doesn’t have proof of a vaccine and leaves, she said. Still, a couple of weeks after the policy was in place the company recorded its best weekend in months, she said.
“We’ve also had a lot of people come in because of this policy,” Kinney said.
Meanwhile, a downtown Denver nightclub owner who created a vaccine mandate gave up checking after he lost nearly half of his customers within a week.
“The club was empty,” said Regas Christou, owner of The Church Nightclub. “There is a lot of competition around town, and there are no clear mandates so other businesses aren’t doing this.”
Christou, who is recovering from a September COVID-19 diagnosis that continues to leave him short of breath, said young Coloradans decried their privacy was being invaded as his doormen asked to see a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination.
The nightclub owner wished the state would provide clear, consistent guidance across businesses so his staff didn’t have to police the public health crisis on their own.
“When the DJ encourages people to get vaccinated during the set, he gets booed,” Christou said. “This is hard for businesses to keep their doors open.”
At Cleo Parker Robinson Dance, vaccines are required for employees, including the company’s dance ensemble, and for guests at shows, Rhetta Shead, the studio’s director of administration, said. But the company travels to perform at various venues around the state, and the rules aren’t always the same in each place.
“With everything changing daily, it makes it really hard to make sure we have the right information, the most updated information,” Shead said.
When the company put on one of the first performances amid the pandemic at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House, they decided to require vaccinations for the audience. It was a huge learning experience, Shead said.
“We were like a guinea pig for testing how long does it take to get 500 people into a building that all have to be checked.” she said.
They learned they will need more people at the doors to check vaccine records so shows can start on time. For Cleo Parker Robinson Dance’s Christmas production, vaccines will be required, and the company is figuring out the logistics so the show runs smoothly.
That means the company needs to have clear instructions for ticket holders on what they need and how early they should arrive. The company is considering offering a holiday market in the lobby so people who arrive early have something to do while they wait for the show to start. They know they will need extra people on hand but haven’t decided whether they’ll use volunteers or hire a crew, Shead said.
But Shead wasn’t sure if a government mask mandate would make a difference when it comes to the work load placed on businesses.
“You wouldn’t have the confusion of what you have to do to get into a venue,” she said. “I don’t know if it would make it easier or worse for us at this point.”
Without clear guidance, the confusion and uncertainty continues.
Just last week, Dr. Robert Schwartz, a Denver geriatrician, put his Nuggets season tickets up for sale after attending one game and realizing no one at Ball Arena was enforcing the venue’s mask mandate.
He spent the third quarter of the Cavaliers game discussing COVID spread inside the arena with someone from guest relations. That conversation, Schwartz said, made him realize no one at Ball Arena intended to enforce a mask mandate.
He and his wife decided it wasn’t worth the risk. They’d rather spend time with their grandchildren, who are too young to be vaccinated, than watch the Nuggets play basketball with COVID in the air. Plus, he has lost too many patients to the virus and couldn’t in good faith participate in an event where no one appeared to care about the overall well-being of the community.
“Our state is going in the wrong direction,” Schwartz said. “The community has to get wise to the role they’re playing in this. It’s really frustrating to see people who won’t do the minimum in a setting that could become a super spreader.”
Then a day after Schwartz posted his tickets on a resale site, Ball Arena announced all attendees would be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test, starting Nov. 10.
Schwartz took his tickets off the resale site.
The doctor said he will go to one game and see whether Ball Arena staff will enforce the new vaccine requirement and the mask mandate. If arena officials do what they say they are going to do, he and his wife will hold on to their seats.
“The question is will they actually enforce it,” Schwartz said. “The rules are the rules but if you don’t enforce them they’re not real.”
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