Bartenders poured old-fashioneds at a bar with a bullet hole right through the woods. Waiters in corsets and fishnet stockings roamed the room and passed an old piano that fills the building with ragtime tunes twice a week.
It was a Friday night at the Diamond Belle Saloon on Main Street in Durango, Colorado. Outside, a man in boots, a cowboy hat, and a button-down vest with a U.S. Marshal’s badge on it was patrolling the block. The eyes scanned the streets for anger. If anger did arise, it would likely take the form of flawed Texans.
“You can’t throw a stone around here without hitting a Texan,” recalled Scott Perez, the man in the Marshal Riot.
After all, this was the Wild West: Spring Break 2021. And the leaders of this town of roughly 19,000 people are eager to keep Covid-19 in check with a little old law and order regarding mask mandates – and even a little modern vaccine science.
Perez is very familiar with this block as he staged his death outside the parlor several times during the summer shooting. The former cowboy and current actor, stuntman, and history buff also pretended to rob the steam train that takes tourists to the former mining town of Silverton. Now a consortium made up of local businesses and the tourist office has hired him and a few other actors to do a very specific job: getting people to follow the city’s mandate to wear their dang masks.
At the beginning of the pandemic, some mining towns and counties excluded visitors. These days, they greet tourists with open arms – and in some cases with a shot in the arm.
The health department, which serves La Plata county in Durango, offers covid vaccines to outsiders. In neighboring San Juan County, where a year ago the sheriff threatened to penalize and tow cars with license plates outside of the county, officials are now telling visitors, “If you’re here with us now, we’ll have you vaccinated if you do are entitled, ”said the district spokeswoman DeAnne Gallegos. Andrew Sandstrom, a spokesman for Gunnison County’s Covid Response, said his county is doing the same, but officials are merely requesting that visitors receive both cans in the same location.
Liane Jollon, executive director of the health ministry in La Plata and Archuleta counties, said more than 30% of residents have received at least one dose of vaccine, making the counties ahead of the curve. They don’t advertise their vaccine supplies to attract tourists, but as long as visitors meet Colorado’s vaccine approval criteria, they don’t turn anyone down, Jollon said.
The state urged vaccine providers not to request IDs or proof of residence to avoid creating obstacles for immigrants or the homeless, said Brian Spencer of the Colorado State Joint Information Center. In a broader sense, however, this means that spring break tourists or visitors to second homes can also take part.
“While vaccinating more people in your jurisdiction can feel like a difficult burden, it also helps protect our entire community,” Jollon said. “We took people out of New Mexico for the day to get a vaccine.”
Typically, visitors at this time of year come in spring waves from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Oklahoma governor refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, and the Texas governor lifted that state’s mandate and opened stores just before tourists arrived in Colorado for the spring break.
In La Plata County, cell phone data analyzed by the Health Department shows that from the first through third weeks of March, non-resident mobile devices were shot from 15% to 40%, with most from Texas and Oklahoma.
Some of the influx started even earlier. In Gunnison County, which banned visitors during the spring break last year, tourism has more than recovered in recent months. Short-term lodging tax revenues in December and January increased by at least 30% compared to the same months before the pandemic.
Coloradans fear what visitors might leave behind.
“We are seeing a new upward trend in many of our mining towns,” said Jollon. “We’re really concerned that after the spring break we might see a spike that would affect our schools’ ability to continue offering personal learning options.”
Around that time 102 years ago, Durango closed its schools and reopened an emergency hospital to help cope with the resurgence of the 1918 pandemic flu. People fumigated their homes with formaldehyde, and the children jumped rope to the song “I had a little bird. His name was Enza. I opened the window and got flu-enza. “
“It was definitely bad here,” said Perez. “They had bodies piled up, especially those that died in winter because they couldn’t dig to bury them. They couldn’t find the undertaker. He was lying between the bodies because he was dying. … Many of the ladies of the evening became nurses. “
This time the community wants to prevent a revival, but also let the tourism dollars flow.
Durango, which draws an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year with its brick buildings, steam train, and cliffs that fall into the Animas River, initially planned to hire a private security firm to help out-of-towers to put on masks move. That’s what the City of Breckenridge did. But then Rachel Brown, director of Visit Durango, jokingly suggested Old West actors.
“I’ve been told that the fun and theatrical approach of the Mask Marshal program has been very well received,” Brown said. “We’re glad we chose this option over private security.”
The need for the masked police puzzles Perez. “I can’t figure it out at all,” he said. “I mean, there is so much evidence of how this helps, and yet it kind of got political.”
His right-wing wife in mask compliance is Cathy Roberts, a fellow actress, as well as an animal advocate and military veteran. She wears a red and black cancan dress and walks past “Miss Kitty”, after the limo owner in the television and radio series “Gunsmoke”.
“She can disarm anyone with charm,” said Perez. “The goal is for me to use some humor to disarm them.” But he also understands that if things go bad they have a second option: a direct line with the Durango Police Department.
“And the third option is not nice,” said Perez. To be clear, the only heat he can pack is two rounds of Pfizer.
When the couple walked into the parlor Friday night, Roberts said, a waitress gave her what she calls “the look.”
“That’s all you have to do,” said Roberts, who quickly spotted the problem at the door: four people who were clearly unfamiliar with Durango’s mask rules. People are required to wear masks indoors, even in a bar or restaurant, unless they are sitting and eating or drinking. The women wore masks, but their noses were not covered. The men had no masks at all.
Roberts happily walked up to her in her ruffled dress, greeted her, greeted her in Durango, and offered masks that said, “Me [heart] Durango. “One man accepted it, she said and put it on. The other pouted and pulled his coat over his mouth.” I’m like, ‘Sorry sir, it’s not over your nose’ and he pulled it up even higher ” she remembered.
Perez leaned back in silence behind her under his headscarf and white mustache. Technically, all of the noses were covered so the couple moved on.
“The mask compliance is really, really high,” said Perez. “There are a lot of people who even wear masks on the sidewalks where they don’t have to.”
For the past few weekends, he’s mostly greeted people, greeted them in Durango, chatted about local history, and then slipped into the rules for masks.
“And it went down well 99.9% of the time,” he said, even among Texans who may also go home vaccinated.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces extensive journalism on health issues. Alongside Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three most important operational programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a foundation that provides health information to the nation.