On a sunny Tuesday, a man sits in his SUV in the parking lot of a Highlands Ranch big box store. Matt Dority carefully looks at the faces passing him by.
He explained what he was watching for.
“Are they wearing a mask? Do they have a mask, but it's not fitted correctly? Or did they just have no mask on at all?”
Dority is a volunteer, tracking mask use for Tri-County, the health department for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. The agency is the only one in Colorado to compile mask data throughout the pandemic. Dority, himself in a yellow mask of the surgical variety, keeps track via an app on his phone. He runs through what he’s seen so far.
“We've got 105 guests, wearing a mask that's fitted correctly…”
There’s a woman with dark hair, wearing a mask properly. Check. Another, mask on, covering the nose, no big gaps. Check. A mom and three kids all in masks. They all get checkmarks. Not everyone does.
“...four guests who have a mask that's on, but it's not fully covering the mouth and nose, three guests who just didn't have a mask on at all.”
When the project began last June, 70 percent were seen wearing a mask. That grew to 90 percent plus after the state and Tri-County ordered a mandate in July. It’s stayed there since. Bottom line, Dority said, “better than 90 percent masking is pretty much the norm now.”
Though public showdowns over masks are easy to find in viral videos, Colorado has ranked high nationally for public mask use. That’s according to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington.
Gunnison County has also tracked mask-wearing, from summer until mid-January. They found that on average 90 percent in Gunnison and Crested Butte wore them in public.
Health director Joni Reynolds said the idea never got too contentious there. Early on some prominent community figures died from COVID-19, which raised awareness.
“I think we had a lot of locals helping educate those that were visiting sometimes in a friendly way,” she said. “And maybe other times in more of an enforcement way to say ‘we wear masks here’ and that was the norm.”
Colorado is one of nearly three dozen states to require face coverings in public to curb COVID-19, according to AARP. The governors of a few states, including in Texas and Montana, have recently ditched statewide mandates.
"I've said all along, I believe in personal responsibility as opposed to government mandates,” Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican, said in explaining his decision. “Montanans don’t like wearing masks."
Still, Gianforte said he’ll keep wearing one and urges others in Montana to do the same.
The rolling back of mandates came as federal officials warned against the move as the numbers of variant cases rise and the stalling out of a sustained drop in cases.
Asked recently if he’d keep Colorado’s mandate, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis was non-committal. However, on March 5 he did as he’s done since the pandemic took hold a year ago and extended the mask order by another 30 days.
“If it helps you to wear a mask cause Gov. Polis ordered it, then please wear it,” Polis said. “I just want you to wear a mask so we can save lives and end the pandemic.”
That message hasn't fully gotten traction even in the state Capitol.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, on Friday in a speech on the Senate floor pleaded with fellow lawmakers to wear masks, noting that her husband had lost his mother, uncle and grandfather to COVID-19 at the end of 2021.
"This pandemic became political. It broke my heart that I have colleagues in this building who refuse to this day to wear masks, leading thousands of people across our state, into denial," she said. "I ask that you put on your mask, that you remember the loved ones that we have lost."
Without naming names, Gonzales sharply criticized colleagues who she said chose to "prop up conspiracy theories and cast doubt on life-saving recommendations" for public health.
"That makes me furious," Gonzales said.
Even as things open a bit, the end is not yet here caution public health experts. The Colorado Rockies baseball team announced the state will allow Coors Field to open at 25 percent capacity, with 12,500 fans. But they must wear a mask except when eating or drinking.
Expect that for concerts and more said University of Colorado epidemiologist May Chu.
“We all think that the virus is going to be with us for a while. Mask wearing is going to last well into next year,” Chu said, echoing federal health leaders, like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Research shows that masks work. One CDC study found hospitalization rates were lower in states with mandates. Chu said to reach broad community protection, Colorado will need both masks and many more people vaccinated.
“That is the way to reduce and essentially kill off the virus,” she said. “And we need to get right.”
Too often Coloradans are not getting one part of it right.
“The public has not been well educated on what makes a good mask and what makes a less good mask,” said John Volckens, a professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. “I don’t want to say bad because bad is not wearing a mask at all. So we could be doing a lot better.”
He and his team tested seven masks used worldwide for the World Health Organization. They examined their ability to filter out particles and breathability. They rated cloth masks, surgical masks, bandanas and others to see which provide the best protection, and published a study in February.
“The N95 is by far the one I would recommend,” Volckens said. “Most of the cloth masks have pretty poor performance.”
The most important deficiency is that “cloth masks tend to leak.” Also they don't have a “great filtration efficiency” compared to some more engineered fibers that are made to filter particles.
The N95 efficiently filters airborne particles, fits close to the face and forms a seal around the nose and mouth. Trouble is, even after months of increased production, they are still hard to find for the general public.
“I encourage people to continue to seek them and increase demand because manufacturers will increase the supply if demand is there,” Volckens said.
Another key factor is the fit of the mask. Since every face is different, it’s critical to use one that fits your face.
“You get widely varying performance because of leaking and talking and breathing,” patterns, which change from person to person, according to Volckens.
Any mask is better than none but, Volckens said, do some research, get a safe one, and make sure it fits snugly with no gaps that might allow the virus to sneak past.
Another Colorado aerosol scientist, Jose-Luis Jimenez, from the University of Colorado Boulder, said masks properly worn, without gaps, increase their effectiveness and safety.
“If people could spend 10 minutes in front of the mirror checking the fit of the mask, making sure they don't have any gaps, or as little gaps as possible, that's really huge, additional benefits that we could still reap,” he said.
Shelly Miller, professor of mechanical engineering at CU and also an aerosol expert, agreed. She said she wears N95 or equivalent masks, which she said are twice as effective as cloth or fashion masks.
“I use them now, every time I go inside a space, I'm worried about variants. I'm worried,” she said. “I just need better filtration protection.”
All three aerosol experts agreed that rather than emphasizing double masking, the push should be to wear a good one that fits well.
“We should be urging good masks,” Jimenez said. If you opt for a cloth mask, or can’t get an N95, be sure it’s pretty thick, like with three layers that you cannot see light through, with a clip on the nose to close any gaps.
They also stressed closing any gaps in your mask.
“There's strong evidence that the way you get this disease is by inhaling a virus that's in a respiratory particle that was spewed up by someone who's infected,” Miller said.
A new study from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention underscored the value of wearing masks. Researchers looked at counties around the nation and found mask-wearing was linked to fewer coronavirus infections and Covid-19 deaths.