Aspen to take enforcement of COVID-19 rules into its own hands

A healthcare provider prepares to label a vial at the coronavirus testing location located at the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s Aspen Village Location on Thursday, March 12, 2020.
(Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen City Council members want the municipal government to take enforcement of COVID-19 public health orders on restaurant and bars into its own hands, saying there are too many violations occurring and they are fearful that reopening the economy will lead to a spike in cases.

During its regular meeting Tuesday, council directed City Manager Sara Ott to come up with a staffing plan that includes individuals who are paid to educate, observe and report violations of public health orders to Pitkin County.

The next step is get to a level of enforcement that is more draconian, such as suspending liquor and business licenses if bars and restaurants are violating public health orders that limit capacity at 50% and tables 8 feet apart.

“How successful will our reopening be when we have some restaurants or individuals who have chosen to flaunt the rules and act like they don’t really know you’re supposed to have a mask on, or that you’re supposed to social distance 6 feet,” said Councilwoman Rachel Richards, calling a case in which a bar owner allowed a large gathering into his establishment two weeks ago “despicable.”

She suggested that the city augment the county’s plan to hire two consumer protection individuals to do spot checks in restaurants with its own inspectors.

“We really need more authority than just depending on the board of health to take action,” she said. “I know we have had to basically hand over our responsibility and our authority when we were under the incident management team but we’re not now.”

Mayor Torre suggested that a “streets team” be created, whether it is made up of existing city staff or others who can be trained on education and enforcement.

He said time is of the essence and a staffing plan needed to be instituted by Friday.

“I just feel like we are a little behind on maintaining our street presence here, so another week for me is another week lost,” Torre said.

Ott pushed back, arguing that she can’t responsibly get an enforcement staff assembled and the related city codes and public health orders changed in short order.

“I’m very uncomfortable trying to throw this together,” she said. “I think this has large implications for our businesses and for the staff who fulfill the role.

“I respectfully ask that we do it right and I don’t appreciate the continued pressure to do it in 72 hours.”

Torre said the conversation about enforcement has been going on for “a while” and he wants to see action.

Ott said she can prepare a staff memo addressing council’s concerns by next week.

Richards, along with other council members, said they support a rollout of education, observation and reporting to the county, with the city working on changing its codes so a team can enforce COVID-19 rules “on the fly.”

“I’m more than willing to grant the time that Sara needs to do this professionally and to do this right and I think there is a little disappointment that we don’t think the county team alone will be enough,” she said. “But I can tell they won’t and I think everything is a balancing on a knife edge right now about whether we slide into the abyss economically and visitation and tourism over the next few months or we come out … that is why we’re all so on edge and we all feel the timing is so (important).”

Councilwoman Ann Mullins said she favors education first and then enforcement.

“I’ve been shocked as I ride around town the first thing in the morning or later at night of the non-compliance in town,” she said.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said last week that the government will prioritize hiring the two consumer protection positions as part of a COVID-19 team it is assembling.

“That’s clearly where we’re feeling the pressure,” Peacock said last week. “We’re not doing enough of that work right now.”

Torre said on Tuesday that he’s concerned about a spike in COVID-19 cases, noting there has been an increase in the valley.

That includes four people who work at City Market El Jebel who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past week.

Roughly 50 people who had contact with those individuals were in quarantine on Tuesday in Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties, an official said. Seventeen of the contacts were in Pitkin County, according to Peacock.

“Nerves are frayed … this is very serious,” Torre said. “My nerves are frayed as well and when we are talking about this, passions run high but I think it’s time that we have the action that we’re going to need locally.”

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