Aspen electeds taking measures for social distancing at BLM protests

People hold up signs at Paepcke Park during a Black Lives Matter protest on Saturday, June 6, 2020, in Aspen. (Photo by Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times)
Austin Colbert/The Aspen Times

City of Aspen officials are working to get a sound system set up for this weekend’s Black Lives Matter protests in Wagner Park in an effort to spread people out and reduce their chances of getting infected by COVID-19.

Aspen City Council members said Tuesday they attended the protests Saturday and Sunday, which attracted hundreds of people who were in close proximity to one another.

The gatherings last weekend and the ones prior to that in response to the murder of George Floyd on May 25 are in defiance of Pitkin County’s public health order that limits groups to 50 people or fewer.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein suggested this week that a sound system be placed at the Sister Cities plaza on the downtown pedestrian mall, and is working with organizers to have more sound throughout the park, which has been suggested by his colleagues.

“In these times of COVID-19 everyone is crammed together to hear what everybody is saying and social distancing goes out the window,” Hauenstein said Wednesday.

Hauenstein is communicating with Roaring Fork Show Up organizers Jenelle Figgins and Sájari Simmons on how to protest in a responsible manner given that the highly contagious virus can spread quickly in crowds.

In an email exchange with Hauenstein this week, they said the No. 1 priority is the safety of protesters, and they support a sound system and will be asking Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor for an expanded walking zone to accomplish proper social distancing.

Mayor Torre and Councilwoman Ann Mullins also support a sound system.

“We are getting in touch with organizers to help with social distancing and spread everybody out,” Torre said.

Mullins said she’d like a sound system for all events that are conducted around town, not just the protests.

She noted, as did other council members, that most people were wearing facial coverings as they protested last weekend.

Torre said Wednesday that the goal is to get all people to wear a mask and exercise proper social distancing.

“We need to do it right,” he said. “I know none of the (protest organizers) have ill will to spread COVID-19 or aid in the transmission (of the disease).”

Torre added that community members, both residents and visitors, must be conscientious amid reopening the economy, which allowed restaurants to serve at 50% capacity starting May 27.

“We are in that in-between time where we could be transmitting (the virus),” he said.

He and the rest of council during their Tuesday meeting expressed their fears and concerns about the lack of enforcement by the county in restaurants that are not following safety protocols and the public health order.

They focused on Scarlett’s and Bootsy Bellows, bars that are owned and operated by Andrew Sandler.

They chastised him for reportedly allowing as many as 150 people in the establishment in defiance of the public health order.

On Wednesday, Hauenstein said there’s a difference between an illegal gathering of more than 50 people at a bar than at a protest.

“Whether it’s a protest for Black Lives Matter or Scarlett’s it’s a gathering, but the protest is outside and Scarlett’s is inside,” he said.

Scarlett’s was issued a cease-and-desist order by the county last week but a lack of evidence has prevented any further action, according to government officials.

Sandler couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.

Torre said the city is not condoning gatherings of more than 50 people but the municipal government is not going to stop people’s right to assemble.

“It’s not OK, that’s why it’s called a protest,” he said.

Mullins said the city’s public health order requiring people to wear facial coverings is when they cannot be 6 feet apart from one another for more than 10 minutes.

Bar patrons apparently didn’t adhere to that public health order at Scarlett’s two weekends ago, but they did at the protests, Mullins said.

“People are moving around and not stationary and inside like they were at Scarlett’s,” she said. “It’s quite a different situation.”

Council on Tuesday directed City Manager Sara Ott to devise in the next week a staffing plan for the municipal government to enforce social distancing and other public health order requirements at bars and restaurants.

Mullins supports Torre’s idea of a “street team” that has staffers monitoring and educating businesses on what the COVID-19 rules are.

“They would be like ambassadors and not putting staff in an enforcement role,” she said. “I think it’s a no-brainer.”

Others, like Hauenstein, want harder enforcement on what he called “outliers” like Sandler.