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Grinning raccoons. An under-the-weather fox. Gunnison Valley’s critters are deployed in a creative coronavirus campaign.

“Who can be mad at a cute bear or an ill fox?” Crested Butte’s town manager asks.

Crested Butte artist John Fellows has created a series of posters using local wildlife caricatures to promote community safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Wear your mask. Stay 6 feet apart. Wash your hands. 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Those COVID-19 warnings have become so omnipresent that the pandemic weary can easily overlook them. The coronavirus-is-a-hoax crowd can ignore their perceived nanny-state overreach.

Not so in the Gunnison Valley.

Here, a grinning raccoon with soapy paws asks citizens to “Keep your paws clean. Wash away COVID-19.” And the outdoorsy residents take notice.  A bald eagle sporting red shorts and a 6-foot wingspan recommends, “Spread your wings. Not COVID-19.” The message turns way more heads than those warning signs using stick figures to demonstrate proper pandemic distancing.

A sampling of some the public health campaign in Gunnison and Crested Butte designed by local artist John Fellows.

What is being referred to as “the critter COVID art campaign” has hit a nerve – in a good way.  Signs at the entrance to town, light poles, full-page newspaper ads, bus stops, trailheads and bus-windows display the mask-wearing critters with a “Be One Valley,” we’re-all-in-this-together message about how best to behave in a pandemic.

Fans of the COVID reminders have been collecting the series of nine prints that have run weekly in the Crested Butte News. They are sticking them on refrigerators and bulletin boards. They are asking for the COVID messages to be printed on T-shirts, hats and masks. Calls have come in from California and New York inquiring if COVID posters are available for sale.

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“We got lots of comments from people who love it,” said Andrew Sandstrom, Gunnison County spokesman and one of those who has been in on crafting the campaign from its inception.

The COVID messaging campaign brought together Crested Butte town officials, Gunnison County Health Department authorities, a local artist and Buttery — a “branded content laboratory” (what used to be called an advertising agency). Their collective mission has been to try to elevate COVID-curbing warnings to an attention-grabbing medium, minus any negativity or heavy-handedness.

“We wanted to figure out COVID messaging without hitting people over the head. We wanted to stay away from the institutional and the sterile,” said Crested Butte artist John Fellows, who created the block-print wildlife art for the campaign.

Crested Butte artist John Fellows stands in his studio on Nov. 23, 2020. The posters he created proved so popular that the town now has signs featuring his creatures at the entrance to town and all along Elk Avenue, the town’s Main Street. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The community-funded ad campaign began last summer after Gunnison County had been in the spotlight as one of the nation’s top COVID hotspots. The county was shut down to visitors. Businesses were shuttered. Second-home owners were sent packing.

MORE: Gunnison County second-home owners, sour from being temporarily banned during coronavirus, gear up for political fight

The county won kudos for its response. It set up a COVID command center aided by hundreds of volunteers that did everything from tracking the virus to delivering food and medicines to the elderly. Some of the tech-savvy volunteers – including Buttery’s messaging pros — created an easy-to-follow COVID information dashboard and the state’s first color-coded coronameter. That was months before the Colorado Department of Public Health copied the idea and began using a similar coronameter.

COVID numbers dropped in Gunnison County after the initial spike. Life opened up with restrictions such as a mask mandate and capacity restrictions in businesses.

Then a second wave hit. COVID numbers began climbing again this summer and fall when tourists poured in and students returned to Western Colorado University. Masks were ordered even outdoors on Crested Butte’s busy downtown Elk Avenue.

MORE: Are you wearing your mask? Because public health officials in Colorado are watching you to find out.

Crested Butte Town Manager Dara MacDonald said as cases jumped, she recognized then that residents were on edge over the constant threat posed by the pandemic. They were tired of the virus’ political polarization. She knew the coronavirus message needed to change.

That would mean deflecting the negativity that some folks have around mask wearing, regulations and restrictions. It would need a shake-up to get residents past sign fatigue from the standard COVID instructional signs plastered all over town.

That led to the idea that local animals — and a bit of levity — might be neutral and noticeable message spreaders.

“Who can be mad at a cute bear or an ill fox?” MacDonald said.

Crested Butte artist John Fellows shows some of the tools he uses to engrave art tiles used to print posters using local wildlife caricatures to promote community safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The communities have found the mask wearing wildlife to be a friendlier way to remind people to wear masks, wash their hands and maintain social distance. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The town had been working with Buttery on tourism advertising and Buttery was already tied in with the countywide COVID information system so MacDonald turned to the agency for spicing up pandemic behavioral instructions.

“We put together a campaign that cut through the noise and represents the CB vibe,” said Mike Horn, Buttery editorial director who has lived in Crested Butte for 16 years.

Horn and Buttery’s Massachusetts-based creative director, Joe Polevy, began a search for artists who could illustrate the message they wanted to get across. They settled on Fellows, an artist well-known in the outdoor illustrating world. Fellows’ wood-block drawings grace products and ads for the Banff Film Festival, Smartwool, Keene and Patagonia. He was doing his work from a small studio in downtown Crested Butte.

Horn and Polevy came up with the catch phrases for each of the COVID posters and gave Fellows creative license to pick the best corresponding critters.

The first sign – an amiable-looking bear in a mask – initially went up at the entrance to Crested Butte with the message “Be CB.” Other critters followed, and they became so popular that Gunnison County and the other Gunnison Valley towns of Gunnison, Almont and Mt. Crested Butte wanted to display the critter art. “Be CB” was swapped out for the “One Valley” message.

Buttery is currently expanding the campaign in other ways. The agency is completing a COVID how-to booklet for businesses using the critter illustrations. Buttery is working on four video animations that will be used on television messaging.

The series now includes masked elks with the message, “Respect the herd.” An under-the-weather fox in a ratty bathrobe with a cup of steaming tea and a dangling thermometer advises, “Feeling ill. Stay home and chill.” An owl snuggling two smaller owls under his wings opines that one should, “Share wisdom. Not COVID-19.”

A horse, nicknamed Fabio because of his flowing mane, is being trotted out this week with the message, “Fresh air is the best air.” A moose will cap off the series in the coming weeks.

The question now is, “Beyond its popularity, does the ad campaign work?”

Betsy Heartfield, a co-owner of The Mountain Store on Elk Avenue can’t answer that. She can see a large critter banner across the street from her store and she has put a critter poster on her front door next to the standard mask-required notice.

(Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I call this Washy the Raccoon. I put him in my window a few days ago because awareness is good,” Heartfield said.

Those associated with the campaign say its effects are impossible to quantify.

Sandstrom said tallies of mask wearing show the county has a high 90% compliance rate in public spaces. In spite of that, Gunnison County, like much of the rest of the state, now has a positivity rate for COVID tests of over 12%.

But the curve is beginning to bend downwards again while the calls, comments and requests for the valley’s COVID art are going up.

The critters are definitely getting noticed.

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