by Rae Ellen Bichell

Bartenders were pouring Old-Fashioneds in a bar with a bullet hole directly through the wood . Servers in corsets and fishnet stockings roamed the room , passing an old piano that , twice a week , fills the building with ragtime tunes.

It was a Friday evening at the Diamond Belle Saloon on the main drag in Durango, Colorado. Outside, a guy in boots, a cowboy hat and a button-down vest adorned with a U.S. marshal badge patrolled the block , eyes scanning the streets for difficulty . If trouble were to appear , it would likely take the form of errant Texans.

You cant throw a rock around here without hitting a Texan, remembered Scott Perez, the guy from the marshal get-up.

This was the Wild West, after all: spring break 2021. And leaders of this city of about 19,000 are eager to hold covid-19 at bay with a little bit of old-time law and order on mask mandates — and even a little modern vaccine science.

Perez is very knowledgeable about this block , having staged his death many times outside the saloon during summer time gunfight performances. The former cowboy and current actor, stuntman and history enthusiast also pretended to rob the steam train that takes tourists to the former mining town of Silverton. Now, a consortium that includes local businesses and the tourism office has hired him and a few other actors for a very specific task: to get people to obey the city ’s mandate to wear their dang masks.

Early in the pandemic, some mountain cities and towns shut out visitors. Nowadays , they’re welcoming tourists with open arms — and, sometimes , a shot in the arm.

The health department that serves Durango’s La Plata County is among those offering covid vaccines to outsiders. In neighboring San Juan County, where the sheriff was threatening to fine and tow cars with out-of-county license plates a year ago, officials are now telling people , If youre here and with us today , lets get you vaccinated if youre eligible , county spokesperson DeAnne Gallegos said. Andrew Sandstrom, a spokesperson for the Gunnison County covid answer , said his county is doing the exact same but officials are only asking that people receive both doses in the same place .

Liane Jollon, executive director of the health department that spans La Plata and Archuleta counties, said more than 30 percent of residents have gotten at least one vaccine dose, placing the counties ahead of the curve. They aret advertising their vaccine supply as a lure for tourists, but as long as visitors fit Colorados vaccine eligibility criteria , Jollon said, they arent turning anyone away.

Scott Perez and Cathy Roberts make the rounds at the Diamond Belle Saloon in Durango, Colorado, on March 21. JEREMY WADE SHOCKLEY / FOR KHN

The state advised vaccine suppliers not to ask for IDs or proof of residency, to avoid creating barriers for immigrants or homeless people, said Brian Spencer, with the Colorado State Joint Information Center. By extension, however , that means spring break tourists or second-home visitors also can partake.

Even though it can feel like a difficult burden to vaccinate more individuals in your authority , it also helps keep our entire community safe, Jollon stated . “We’ve had people drive up for the day from New Mexico to find a vaccine. ”

Typically this time of year, visitors come in spring break waves from Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. Oklahoma’s governor has refused to impose a statewide mask mandate, and the governor of Texas lifted that state ’s mandate and fully reopened businesses soon before spring break tourists began arriving in Colorado.

In La Plata County, mobile data examined by the health department shows that, from the first week of March to the third, mobile devices belonging to nonresidents shot from 15 percent of the total to 40%, with most coming from Texas and Oklahoma.

Some of the influx started even sooner . Gunnison County, which prohibited visitors during last year’s spring break, has seen tourism greater than rebound in the last few months. It had a jump of at least 30 percent in tax revenue from short-term accommodation in December and January compared with the same months before the pandemic.

Coloradans fear what the visitors may leave behind.

In many of our mountain towns, were starting to find a new uptick, said Jollon. “We’re really concerned that following spring break we could see an uptick that would hurt our schools’ ability to continue to offer in-person learning choices . ”

Around this time 102 decades back , Durango was closing its schools and opening an emergency hospital — again — to take care of a resurgence of the 1918 influenza pandemic. People were fumigating their homes with formaldehyde, and children were jumping rope into the song “I had a little bird. Its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flu-Enza. ”

It was definitely bad here, said Perez. They had bodies stacked up, particularly the ones that died in the winter because they cant dig to bury them. They cant find the mortician. He had been laying amongst the bodies because he died. … A lot of the women of the evening became nurses. ”

So this time, the community wants to avoid a resurgence, but also keep the tourism dollars flowing.

Durango, which generally attracts an estimated 1.5 million people annually with its brick buildings, steam train and bluffs crumbling in the Animas River, originally planned to hire a private security company to convince out-of-towners to don masks. This ’s what the city of Breckenridge did. But Rachel Brown, executive director of Visit Durango, jokingly proposed Old West actors instead.

I’ve been told that the fun and theatrical approach of the Mask Marshal program is being very well received, Brown said. “ We are glad that we chose this alternative over private security. ”

The demand for mask police puzzles Perez. I cant figure it out at all, he said. “I mean there’ so much evidence about how this helps and somehow it became political. ”

Old West actor Cathy Roberts hands out free masks. JEREMY WADE SHOCKLEY / FOR KHN

His right-hand woman in mask compliance is Cathy Roberts, a fellow reenactor, plus an animal advocate and army veteran. She wears a red-and-black cancan dress and goes by Miss Kitty, after the saloon owner in the TV and radio show Gunsmoke. ”

She can disarm anyone with charm,” said Perez. “The objective is that I disarm them with some comedy . ” But he’s also clear they have another option if things go sour: a direct line to the Durango Police Department.

And the third option aren’t pretty, said Perez. To be clear, the only warmth he’s packing is just two rounds of Pfizer.

As the pair entered the saloon Friday night, Roberts recounted, a waitress gave her what she predicts “the look . ”

“That’s all they gotta do,” said Roberts, who quickly spotted the problem by the doorway : four individuals who clearly were not familiar with Durango’s mask principles . Individuals are required to wear masks inside , even in a bar or restaurant, unless they’re seated and eating or drinking. The women had on masks, but their noses weren’t insured . The men didn’t have masks at all .

Roberts walked up cheerfully in her ruffled dress, greeted them, welcomed them to Durango, and provided masks that stated “I [heart] Durango. ” One man accepted it, she said, and put it on. Another sulked, zipping up his coat over his mouth. Im like, Sorry, sir, its not over your nose, and he pulled it up even higher, she recalled .

Perez hung back , silent beneath his bandanna and white mustache. Technically speaking, all noses were covered, so the pair moved on.

Mask compliance actually is really, really high, said Perez. “There’s a lot of people wearing masks out on the sidewalks, where they don’t have to. ”

The past few weekends, he’s mostly found himself greeting people, welcoming them to Durango, conversing about local history and then slipping in the rules about masks.

And 99.9% of the time, thats well received, he said, even one of the Texans, who may go home vaccinated.

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a nationwide newsroom that produces in-depth journalism regarding health difficulties . Together with Policy Evaluation and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.

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