Aspen Police Chief talks COVID-19 mask enforcement

Staff report
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor
Aspen Times file

Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor answered some questions posed by The Aspen Times about the enforcement of the local COVID-19 public health orders.

Aspen Times: What did you glean from your walk around town this week?

Richard Pryor: My general and unscientific observations are:

On Monday, I walked for an hour midafternoon doing a loop around the core. My perception was a majority of people were wearing masks, however, I counted 43 people not wearing them. It looked like people waiting in various lines for stores who were wearing them.

On Wednesday, I walked for 45 minutes midafternoon around the downtown core and City Market area; 160 people were wearing masks; 95 not wearing masks, but many of those not wearing had them visibly available. Those waiting in lines generally seemed to be wearing them.

Those not wearing masks were not in violation of the public health order or ordinance 11. The encounters were brief and so people were maintaining the 6-foot/10-minute criteria (explained below).

AT: Is the department going to enforce the local ordinance?

RP: That is the million dollar question on the minds of many. The simple answer at the moment is “no.” The why behind this answer is more complicated.

Ordinance 11 states that people must wear a face covering in a business or mode of transportation open to the public with some restaurant exceptions.

It also states they should be worn in other indoor or outdoor places where persons are unable to maintain 6 or more feet for a period of more than 10 minutes. This is a municipal ordinance that carries a $50 fine for a first offense.

What this means is that in order to have an offense that is enforceable, a police officer or witness must observe that a person has been within 6 feet of another for more than 10 minutes with no mask, or sees a person in a business without a face covering.

Think about the practicalities involved in taking an enforcement action, i.e. using police powers to stop and detain someone while investigating a violation.

Should an officer follow someone/anyone around for undetermined periods of time in the expectation that they will eventually come across a person who stays close to another for more than 10 minutes without a mask?

This is not practical. It does not fit with the way we police in Aspen. Of the examples of those I saw not wearing face coverings on Monday and Wednesday, I would have had no legal justification to initiate an enforcement contact. All of those without masks were in fact complying with the current ordinance when I saw them.

Should an officer walk downtown and check in on every business to see that patrons of the business are complying with the order?

While a more obvious offense when seen, this issue is not one we are receiving complaints about, and nor do we have staffing available to do this consistently or fairly.

Think of the amount of time it takes to do this. An example is that it took officers three hours on a Friday night to walk around just a portion of our restaurants.

I understand the priority around COVID. At the same time, we are receiving calls to respond to bears, noise issues, traffic complaints, alarms, thefts, harassments, disturbances and accidents.

What we absolutely will enforce is if we are called to a situation where there is poor behavior on the part of, for example, a patron of a business refusing to wear a face covering who is harassing their staff.

There has been increasing voluntary compliance with wearing masks over the weeks since the original resolution was passed.

This is a big cultural change that our community is getting to grips with and beginning to realize that this is our new normal.

If the Pitkin County Board of Public Health or the Aspen City Council were to adjust face covering guidelines or rules, for example creating a zone, or adjusting ordinance verbiage, I would still advocate for a very intense public education and support approach, rather than enforcement with fines.

While I understand some disagree, the police business has taught me the value in engaging with people positively, even on such an emotive and polarizing issue as this, as the more effective strategy.

And I wonder about the long-term value to this community of the $50 face covering tickets given to a group of tourists who will be replaced by another group every week.

AT: What has the Aspen Police Department been doing recently on the current issues?

RP: We’ve assigned two community resource officers to the city’s health team to support business education and compliance, which has been ongoing for over three weeks.

• There have been regular checks of restaurants to look for major compliance issues.

• There have been over 178 shifts with 350 hours of specific time dedicated to community engagement around masks or public health related issues.

• Approximately 20% of an officer’s time at work per week is directed toward this engagement.

• City Council members and members of several city departments, including the APD, are working together to ensure consistent messaging and ongoing education, including mask giveaways, virtual and in person education and discussions, as well as modeling behavior while in the community.

• We also have spent 75 hours specifically responding to complaints from members of the community related to public health order violations.

More Like This, Tap A Topic

Hanukkah has arrived in Aspen

Members of the valley’s Jewish community gathered at the Albright Pavilion at Aspen Meadows Thursday for their second annual menorah lighting ceremony to celebrate and acknowledge the first day of Hanukkah.

See more