Aspen duo hits streets to support, education businesses

Garrigus, Sears part of COVID-19 compliance teams working within Aspen and Pitkin County

Mike Sear and Emmy Garrigus are the eyes and ears for the city of Aspen when it comes to COVID-19 public health order education, outreach and compliance.

Between them, they walk the downtown core multiple times a day, seven days and nights a week.

“I probably get 10,000 to 12,000 steps in a day,” said Sear, who is one of the city’s consumer health protection specialists along with Garrigus during the pandemic.

On Friday, Sear and Garrigus were on their way to a new jewelry store on Cooper Avenue to connect with the owner and management team to provide them with a COVID-19 business toolkit packet, which has all the relevant information about safety plans, public health protocols and capacity limits under the state’s Red level restrictions, which started Sunday in Pitkin County.

Jackie Pagnucco, manager of Kate Maller Jewelry, asked some questions, and then showed the consumer health protection specialists around the store.

Prior to that visit, Sear and Garrigus stopped at White House Tavern, to check on the restaurant and ensure it was following the 25% capacity rule, everyone was wearing masks, and temperatures and names were being collected by the greeter, all requirements of the business safety plan that’s filed with Pitkin County.

Everything checked out OK.

Also on Friday they met briefly with the managers at The Hotel Jerome and The Little Nell to discuss their plans for outdoor dining, since indoor dining was banned by the county board of health starting Sunday.

And that was just an hour of their day, as they visit or observe hundreds of businesses a day. Other daily tasks include coordinating and posting new mask ordinance signs around town, following up on complaints of possible public health order violations, answering questions from business representatives and meeting with their counterparts in the county health department.

“We really see that a lot of our job is customer-service oriented, just leading with education and outreach,” Garrigus said. “Oftentimes we’ll visit a business to talk about one thing and that brings up other questions so we try to be a resource for the businesses and get them the information they need.”

Chasing the complaints

If a complaint is lodged via the county’s online form and it is a business within the city, Garrigus or Sear will go observe the restaurant, make the manager or owner aware that a complaint was filed and educate him or her on how to correct it.

Sear said sometimes they’ll reach out to the person who made the complaint to get some context prior to their visit of the business, and they’ll also follow up with the complainer after they make the observation.

They document what they see, the conversation they had with the business and any other related information.

Sometimes that information is essential if the county health department has to take punitive measures.

All observations are recorded under the same system and the complaint investigation process also shared between the city and the county, said Bryan Daugherty, environmental health specialist for Pitkin County.

“If we see repeated violations of the public health order after multiple visits we will issue a warning to that business,” he said via email last week. “Because the Pitkin County public health order is administered by the county, members of the county (consumer protection) team will deliver warnings to those businesses instead of the city.”

Daugherty said if the county team continues to see repeated violations after a warning, or egregious violations occur that need to be addressed immediately, it will issue a notice of violation, or a cease and desist order, which requires the business follow the public health order or face penalties such as fines, jail time, or closure.

As of last week, the county had issued warnings to 30 separate businesses, as well as six notice of violations, and three businesses were forced to close for egregious violations of the public health order.

The county attorney’s office refused to provide further information about what those violations were for and by whom, citing that it is privileged information.

The Aspen Times has requested that information be released under the Colorado Open Records Act and is awaiting a response by the county.

According to Natalie Tsevdos, the city of Aspen’s senior environmental health specialist, compliance among Aspen businesses is at almost 80%.

That means restaurants are adhering to capacity limitation, spacing of tables, social distancing measures, sanitizing practices and other requirements of the county’s public health order and business safety plan.

Team approach

Garrigus and Sear are part of a four-person Aspen Health Protection Team, which includes Tsevdos as the manager and Mitch Osur, the city’s director of downtown services and parking.

The county has four consumer protection specialists, and another one is expected to be hired in the coming weeks. Daugherty serves as the manager of the team.

The Aspen team is focused within the city limits but county members work within Aspen and the rest of the county.

Tsevdos said her team works with the county to help ensure COVID safety for the community mostly through an education and support-based approach.

Before the Halloween and New Year’s holidays, the team did targeted in-person outreach and sent written communications to restaurants and events-related companies, such as valets.

During the holiday season, the team spent more time on complaint investigation and response, as well as making and documenting observations, which sometimes included past curfew.

Compliance on Halloween and over the New Year’s holiday weekend was high with mostly minor violations being observed, Tsevdos noted in a memo to Aspen City Council.

On Tuesday during council’s work session, she will make a presentation and update elected officials on the team’s efforts since it was established late last summer.

Council agreed to spend $200,000 for the program as part of its COVID-19 response and recovery program.

The county’s budget for public health COVID staffing from July 2020 through December 2021 is $1.7 million, which includes contact tracers, consumer protection specialists, supervisors, administrative support and other related costs, according to Connie Baker, budget director for Pitkin County.

Sear, who previously worked as a manager at Aspen Sports, and Garrigus, who was a manager at Lululemon, said they enjoy building relationships with representatives of Aspen businesses and focusing on customer service.

“I always joke that my customers used to be the tourists, now my customers are the businesses,” Sear said.

Garrigus said she was at Lululemon when most of the local economy shutdown in March after the first outbreak of COVID-19 hit here. Having an outreach team is key to the success of containing the virus, she added.

“Just seeing the need for information and not knowing what was going on and there is so much information out there and we wanted to know what the best avenue was to get it,” Garrigus said of those early pandemic retail days. “It’s been so cool to be on the flip side and be able to help.”

And with public health orders and rules changing so quickly, the consumer protection teams are focused on businesses being able to pivot on a dime.

Sear estimated that between a half-dozen to a dozen restaurants plan to operate outdoor during the Red level restrictions.

“Our main goal is getting the information out as soon as we get it so they can make business decisions,” Sear said.

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