Aspen dancing loose on COVID-19 rules
Aspen police sent six potential COVID-19 public health order violations that occurred at downtown restaurants this past weekend to Pitkin County for investigation.
Whether the county’s public health department or board of health takes action remains to be seen, as officials continue to navigate uncharted territory amid concerns that noncompliance will fuel the spread of the disease.
County Assistant Attorney Richard Neiley said Monday that he forwarded the police officers’ observation notes and photos to public health and was awaiting direction.
Meanwhile, he is scheduled to meet with county commissioners in executive session Tuesday morning to discuss legal interpretations of COVID-19 public health orders.
Part of the orders mandate that restaurants be at 50% capacity, have tables spaced 6 feet apart and employees must wear masks.
And it is apparent since the industry reopened May 27 that many establishments are not following the rules.
“The photographs from various establishments mostly depict violations of the public health order,” Neiley said. “We are certainly looking at it, because this weekend really moved it to the forefront.”
Neiley declined to identify the businesses because they cases are under investigation.
The city of Aspen is hiring two additional staff members in the environmental health department who will do compliance work with the goal of keeping businesses out of the enforcement process.
“It’s our hope that we’ll have folks out in the field working with businesses on how they can be in compliance,” said C.J. Oliver, the city’s director of environmental health. “We don’t want them to lose their business license just as much as they don’t want to lose their business license.”
The county has the authority to consider restaurant and liquor license suspensions, as well as fines.
“If public health decides they need to enforce, we will,” Neiley said, “but we’d like businesses to comply on their own.”
City Manager Sara Ott wrote in a memo to City Council that there are regular discussions among Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, City Attorney Jim True and the county attorney’s office to understand the interpretation of the public health orders, the quality of evidence necessary, and to collaborate on how to proceed when there is a violation.
Depending on the infraction, an APD officer also may be able to write a ticket, Ott said.
Last week, she assigned two park rangers to be in the downtown core and at the Black Lives Matter protests Saturday and Sunday.
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Monday morning that there were no issues at the protests.
He noted that beyond the potential violations sent to the county, APD also spoke with the management of Escobar to be sure that they were meeting the demands of the health order by serving food not provided by the establishment.
The APD also has had multiple conversations with Andrew Sandler, who owns Scarlett’s and Bootsy Bellows, and who was issued a cease-and-desist order earlier this month for operating with more than 50 people, many of whom were not wearing facial coverings.
Periodic site visits also have occurred at the clubs located on Hopkins Avenue, and officers found no violations.
“It doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred, but it means that those who do see it need to file a complaint and be willing to serve as a witness for enforcement by the county,” Ott wrote in her memo.
Ott said during council’s Monday meeting that she is in negotiations with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association to provide additional staffing for the guest services and visitor center.
Between two and four people are anticipated to work 4 to 8 p.m. every day walking the core with public health order information, masks and hand sanitizer, among other things.
ACRA can be ready to start the program July 1, and run it through Labor Day, Sept. 7.
The staffing expansion is expected to cost roughly $30,000.
Oliver said he is working on job descriptions to hire the two full-time enforcement contract workers.
He said he expects to have people hired and trained hopefully by next month.
“We want to do this as quickly as we can but we want to do it right,” Oliver said.
The additional staff at ACRA and in environmental health came from a request by council last week that the city take control of enforcement through education and a “street team” to ensure compliance.
Council is scheduled to discuss enforcement of the public health order Tuesday afternoon.
Council members Monday evening lamented that many individuals around town this past weekend were not wearing facial coverings, and new COVID-19 cases have come to the valley.
Two restaurants in Aspen have temporarily closed because one of their employees tested positive for COVID-19.
“(Public health orders) take on some extra weight when you see that happening,” Oliver said.