On-trend and dressed to the nines on a sunny afternoon last week, the quartet of fashionistas paused to reapply lip gloss and do a quick sidewalk preen in the reflection of a Manitou Springs shop window. Then, one-by-one, they breezed barefaced into the store.

Past the sign, and then the other sign, that read, “NOTICE Face masks required per Manitou Springs City Council emergency order.....” Past the other shoppers and the woman behind the counter, who all wore masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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For almost ten minutes, the influencers wandered the aisles, striking glamorous poses and snapping cell phone pics. As they headed for the exit, the shop clerk — who looked to be about their age — finally spoke up:

“If you’re posting on Instagram and Snapchat be sure to tag us.”

On second thought, maybe don’t.

This is Manitou, and there could be repercussions.

To mask or not-to-mask might be a choice elsewhere in El Paso County, and most places in Colorado, but in this artsy town just west of Colorado Springs, masks remain a required part of the going-out ensemble.

Colorado’s statewide mask mandate effectively ended in mid-May, when Gov. Jared Polis announced that people who were fully vaccinated could forgo face-coverings in public settings. Manitou Springs’ city council didn’t lift their order until early June. Less than three months later, as the Delta variant of coronavirus spread rapidly, driving up hospitalizations and deaths, council members voted to bring masks back in all indoor, public spaces.

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No one's gotten in trouble yet, but businesses that don’t enforce the mandate have been told they will face fines and could even find their licenses in jeopardy for repeated offenses. Patrons who refuse to comply or get out could be arrested for trespassing.

“What makes it really confusing is that there was a time when (requiring masks) was up to the store owners,” said Paul Thoma, owner of Gigi’s gift shop on Manitou Ave. “Now it’s being required by the city, but I don’t think the customers see a difference and they think it’s us doing this to them, like it’s personal. Some of us wish we all had bouncers at our doors…”

Most patrons don’t have a problem with masks, he said. If they don’t have their own, the Manitou Chamber of Commerce provides businesses with free disposable masks for shops to hand out.

When things work ideally, there’s no story to tell. When they don’t, it’s ugly enough to change your opinion about lots of things.

Kelsey Peasley, who owns Barefoot Native gem and jewelry shop with her husband, Joshua, said she isn’t the only local business owner who’s frustrated but abiding by a mandate that could lead to practical, and legal, conundrums for owners and staff.

If someone comes in the shop without a mask, clearly sees the signs and doesn’t stop, “you’ve got to think they have an (mask) exemption,” Kelsey Peasley said.

“And we cannot ask ... what their medical status or condition is, because we could be fined. That puts us in a really tough spot.”

Peasley said that last year’s mask mandate led to a “definitive” drop in income for the business. She understands the motivations behind that order. She’s got issues with the more recent one.

“We are a tourist town. That does give us a responsibility to make sure that people have a good time while they are here and that they are safe, but they can also make decisions for themselves and mitigate their own risk with their own knowledge of their own health," she said. "Now it’s us business owners who have to bear the burden of still making it a fun place to be ... while still abiding by the mandate.”

Manitou Mayor Pro Tem Nancy Fortuin said the city wasn’t surprised by the response from the business community, in a tourist town supported largely by visitors’ dollars.

“Currently, as with any decision making, we have mixed feedback in support of, or not in support of the facial coverings requirement,” Fortuin said in a statement. “Our goal is safety, and I believe all of our businesses share that same goal. Businesses not in support of the facial coverings requirement are mainly concerned with having to deal with unruly customers.”

Mackenzie Helms, marketing coordinator for the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce, said he’s heard similar comments, and complaints.

“There are some businesses that are happy it’s in place. Some that are less fond of it (because) they get flack from visitors. It’s gotten pretty difficult on some of them when basically they have customers who come in and walk out as soon as they hear there’s a mask mandate in place,” Helms said.

Other businesses have said they don’t want to put their employees at risk by demanding they be “enforcers” and engage in a situation that potentially could turn volatile.

“We still see plenty of people who actively see the flier and still walk in without a mask on. They’re just not going to wear one, in general,” Helms said. “So it just becomes a point of, how much is it worth confronting them and putting your employees in front of someone that is ready to put up a fight about it?”

Deliberate ignorance and rule-flouting aside, you’d be surprised what people can legitimately miss when they’re paying attention to something else. Notices on business websites, posted on doors, even a lit-up message spelled out in six-inch letters as you drive into town …

...from a sister city where it was OK to go maskless.

Helms says he understands how some visitors might think the mask wiggle-room they encountered elsewhere extended to Manitou.

“When somebody can walk into a Manitou business and be told they have to wear a mask, when they could have gone into any business in Colorado Springs or Old Colorado City and typically not be told they had to wear a mask ... that’s where we’ve seen a lot of that conflict come from,” Helms said.

Like his fellow business owners, Paul Thoma said he put up the “Masks required” signs, crossed his fingers, and hoped it would be better than last time. Gigi’s gift shop was closed for a year and three months during the pandemic, but Thoma heard the stories about mask-pushback that led to fights and lost revenue.

Since the most recent mask mandate went into effect on August 23, Thoma said things have been relatively status quo at his store. He’s had potential patrons walk out when he tells them to mask up, or keep walking when they see the sign, informing him that “just so you know, the place down the street didn’t do this to me.” Others are genuinely chagrined that they’ve accidentally broken a rule.

“There were so many people that really didn’t know about the mandate. They'd say they were so sorry and turn to leave when they saw the sign, and I'd tell them 'I’ve got a mask for you,' and they'd be so grateful,” he said. “Right now, I think the crowd now is better informed or becoming better informed."

As Thoma spoke, he looked up to see that a mask-less man and his mask-wearing female companion had made their way into his shop.

Thoma and the man locked eyes. Thoma raised his brows and pointed to the mask on his own face.

“I could tell he knew, and he winked,” Thoma said, after the couple had left the store.

But the man was sipping on a fountain soda as he browsed the shop. Even Manitou Springs’ mask mandate has a loophole for people who are eating and drinking!?

“Yeah, open food and drink containers aren’t allowed in here either,” said Thoma. "We've got a sign."


Stephanie Earls is a news reporter and columnist at The Gazette. Before moving to Colorado Springs in 2012, she worked for newspapers in upstate NY, WA, OR and at her hometown weekly in Berkeley Springs, WV, where she got her start in journalism.

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