Aspen-area party businesses warned not to violate health order
Pitkin County officials consider penalties for those who serve private gatherings
Now that indoor private parties and gatherings have been prohibited through the holiday season, area businesses that service said soirees should take note.
Pitkin County public health officials signaled a willingness this week to punish party rental outfits, caterers, parking valets and others who make their living off the Aspen area’s traditionally numerous private holiday parties and events.
“It’s something we will be looking at,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock told county board members Tuesday. “(But) private gatherings, frankly, are hard to catch.”
Markey Butler, chair of the Pitkin County’s health board, said Monday that catering companies that serve private parties this holiday season in violation of public health orders need to be told “we will yank their (business) licenses.”
“That’s a tough message,” said the former Snowmass Village mayor. “I’m not real excited about having a lot of indoor events.”
Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins, an alternate health board member, said at Monday’s board meeting she’s seen party rental trucks in her neighborhood recently.
“One truck asked for directions and I refused to give them,” she said.
Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said Tuesday that parking companies need to be notified of the health order rules and possible consequences for violating them.
“Without enforcement, we really are not protecting the public health,” she said.
Health board members decided Monday that Pitkin County’s status on the state’s COVID-19, color-coded restriction levels would remain at the Orange level. However, the board voted to voluntarily implement most Red level restrictions in the county — with two significant exceptions — starting Tuesday and lasting until at least Jan. 4.
Board members agonized over the decision for two-and-a-half hours before deciding that remaining in Orange would allow more local control over restrictions. Moving to Red, they determined, would not provide the wiggle room they wanted when they allowed restaurants to continue at 25% capacity and already-permitted indoor events through Jan. 4 to move forward. In addition, once in Red, the county might find it difficult to get out of it.
Board members called the new restrictions “Orange-plus-plus.” They do not allow indoor gatherings at all and require visitors and residents alike to socialize only with members of the same household whether in restaurants, hotels or private residences.
Still, COVID-19 infection in Aspen and Pitkin County remained rampant Tuesday, and the state could move the county involuntarily into the Red zone if one of two other metrics — hospitalizations and the positivity rate — rise to Red levels.
Pitkin County’s incidence rate — which jumped again Tuesday to 1,509 — is the main concern and the metric that prompted the hand-wringing at Monday’s meeting. The highest rate allowed under Red level restrictions is 350.
More than a quarter of the county’s 873 positive COVID-19 cases since March 1 have come in the past two weeks. The positivity rate was at 9% Tuesday, which was increasing but still in the Yellow level.
One person with COVID symptoms was admitted to Aspen Valley Hospital on Monday, according to local epidemiology data. That remained in the comfortable level, though if three local residents are hospitalized in a day the state would move the county to Red.
The concern over what to do about the county’s growing infection rate — termed both “astronomical” and “exponential” Monday by the interim public health director — triggered a health board discussion about enforcement that spilled over into Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting.
On Monday, Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, also a board of health member, said he wanted to talk about a letter written by fellow health board member Dr. Tom Kurt on the subject of deputizing local public health order compliance officers. The suggestion prompted a strong reaction from Mullins.
“I really do not support the idea of deputizing (compliance officers),” she said, citing the large amount of training police officers and sheriff’s deputies receive. “I have strong reservations about deputizing anybody who wants to come out.”
Poschman shot back that he “wasn’t suggesting we just pull people off the street,” and Tuesday at the commissioner meeting groused that his idea had been shut down so quickly.
“(Leadership on compliance) will have to come from this board,” he said.
Just one business in town has faced serious consequences for defying public health orders during the entire pandemic, and that owner received only “a slap on the wrist,” Poschman said.
“I heard he had a party on his rooftop the other night,” he said of the defiant business owner. “We need to make an example of someone before people take this seriously.”
Peacock said public health officials have heard similar rumors about a party, though in a subsequent interview said he had no concrete information other than it may have occurred last weekend.
Clapper proposed that compliance officers be able to shut down a non-compliant business or restaurant on the spot. Commissioner George Newman, however, said that could put a civilian in a “precarious and possibly harmful situation,” and said police must be called in the case of an immediate shut down.
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury asked if rangers working with the county’s Open Space and Trails program could be moved into public health order compliance duties while their ranger jobs are curtailed during winter. Peacock said he’d look into it, though he also pointed out that the county plans to spend $146,000 doubling the number of consumer protection compliance officers in the coming weeks.
With the vaccine beginning to be administered, it’s unclear how long those new temporary workers will be needed, Peacock said Tuesday.
“But even if we hired 25 new people … we can’t police everyone all the time, and we shouldn’t have to,” he said.
Poschman on Monday also proposed a Pitkin County-wide curfew that would apply to everyone, not just businesses. He said he knew such action would be complicated, unfair and unenforceable, but felt it was nonetheless necessary.
“I think we have to do this,” he said.
Michael Goldberg, owner of Belly Up and Matsuhisa, said the idea had the support of some in the business community. Rather than “dumping people on the streets at 10” with nowhere to go, a full curfew leaves them no alternative but to go home, Goldberg said.
Aspen Mayor Torre and Snowmass Village Mayor Bill Madsen wondered how a blanket curfew would be enforced. Madsen said the idea would need “buy-in” from the community because no municipality is going to send police officers chasing people around for curfew violations.
Peacock said Tuesday that the county attorney’s office also says a blanket curfew might not be enforceable. Further, in order for one to be implemented, officials must establish direct evidence showing it will bring down the infection risk, he said.
One area of voluntary compliance that appears to be catching on is Pitkin County’s traveler affidavit program.
The effort requires overnight visitors to Aspen and the county to fill out an online form attesting that they have had a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of traveling here. Residents who have been gone more than 10 days also must fill out the affidavit.
Since the program began Dec. 7, more than 9,400 people have submitted the forms as of Tuesday morning, Peacock said.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” he said. “When we were rolling it out, we felt we would achieve a voluntary level of compliance, and I think we are getting that.”
Poschman said he’s heard from one traveler who canceled plans here when a member of the traveling group who was asymptomatic tested positive for the virus. He said he expected the person to be angry, and was relieved to find they were grateful.
Those canceling reservations because of the affidavit are missing the point that the program is meant to keep everyone healthy, he said.
“If that’s the case,” Poschman said, “you’re invited to stay away.”