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City of Aspen building its COVID-19 health team

Vials containing swabs used in nasal tests for COVID-19 are collected for transport to a laboratory after being administered outside the Colorado State Capitol to lawmakers and other state employees as well as any other individuals who requested to take the test June 15, 2020 in Denver.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Aspen electeds consider citywide face mask zonE

Aspen City Council on Monday voted on first reading on an ordinance that would require people to wear face coverings in all indoor and outdoor public spaces throughout the city limits.

If passed on final reading Tuesday night, there would be no exemptions for those who are exercising, or those on a bike.

The new law would eliminate the current rule that masks only need to be worn if a person is going to be within six feet of another and are not part of the same household.

It also would exempt people who are stationary while eating al fresco, as well as indoors.

There also are exceptions for age and medical condition. Also exempt are those inside a private residence or working in a professional office who do not have face-to-face interactions with the public or co-workers. Performers, who are 25 feet away from spectators, also would be exempt.

A majority of council during Monday’s special meeting agreed that the emergency ordinance, if passed, be in effect immediately and last until Nov. 1, when it would be reevaluated.

Council members Rachel Richards, Ann Mullins and Skippy Mesirow were in support for the zone to encompass everything in city limits to keep the message simple and clear that wearing a mask is necessary all the time in public to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Council member Ward Hauenstein and Mayor Torre favored a more condensed area, known as the “central zone,” which encompasses the areas between Original/Neal Street on the east, Aspen Street on the west, Aspen Mountain to the south and the Roaring Fork River.

Hauenstein said he would extend it to Herron and Newbury parks, the No Problem Joe Bridge area and the base of Highlands.

He and Torre said they were concerned about compliance in such a large area like the entire city. They also said the zone is to address condensed areas where aerosol spread of the virus is more likely.

Torre and Hauenstein voted in favor of the citywide zone to move the ordinance forward for further discussion on Tuesday but voiced their reservations.

“I hate to vote against this but I have serious questions” on such a wide swath of the city, Torre said. “This is tough stuff guys ... unprecedented is not a word that is underutilized these days.”

Because it’s an emergency ordinance, four out of five council voters must vote in the affirmative for it to pass.

Richards and Mullins, who supported a more condensed zone last week, said feedback from citizens since then have convinced them to get more draconian.

“The fear that our residents are developing of our guests I think is a very negative thing,” Richards said. “There is starting to be some real disdain and questioning whether we should be a community like this at all, a tourism community, when our guests don’t seem to care about our health or our public safety ... people are worried about this ... (the virus) is spreading like no tomorrow.

The city of Aspen is beefing up its health protection team and aligning it with Pitkin County’s to ensure better compliance with COVID-19 public health orders.

The team is in the process of following up on 14 complaints forwarded by the county that were received by members of the public between July 15 and July 22.

The complaints that require investigation are being extracted from the county-wide database, which had a total of 60 complaints since it’s been up and running for the past month, according to C.J. Oliver, the city’s director of environmental health.

He said team members will contact the business in person to discuss the complaint, or potential violation, and provide whatever assistance they need to tighten up the operation so they are complying with local and state orders.

“We are trying to get them to understand what is expected of them and help them,” Oliver said.

He is in the process of hiring two new full-time consumer and employee health protection specialists, who will help with education, compliance and other COVID-19 matters.

One individual, who has a background in retail management, is scheduled to start Aug. 6.

The other person, who currently lives in Eagle and has a background in public health and retail, has the job offer but is looking for housing and will either accept or decline by Wednesday, Oliver said.

Both employees will be paid just under $30 an hour and will receive full benefits.

The positions are open-ended.

“We’ll have these folks in the field as long as there’s COVID compliance to be done,” Oliver said.

As part of its $6 million COVID-19 relief and recovery package that Aspen City Council approved in April, $350,000 has been committed to the health protection team.

That money goes to full-time staff, equipment, technology, specific printing and record-keeping systems.

The current city health team, which consists of a handful of city staff members and community resource officers, has been in the field for about a month.

Because of their regular job duties, they are limited to a couple of hours a day to focus on COVID-19-related issues.

The new specialists will provide a more consistent presence in the community, Oliver noted in a memo to council for its Monday work session.

It also will add capacity to the city’s COVID-19 response, which has been behind in some regards as public health orders continue to change.

“I feel like we’re trying to play catch-up,” Oliver said, adding he looks forward to offseason so he can get the team up to speed to help businesses prepare for winter.

Additionally, his team is working closer with Pitkin County staff to better align health protection efforts in both jurisdictions to make sure information is consistent for all businesses and people who are subject to the public health orders in the area.

“I want people to experience seeing the same thing at the ABC as they are in Snowmass Village and here in Aspen,” Oliver said. “We’re trying to be in lockstep with the county and I’m excited to get these ships aligned.”

Shared information includes databases for tracking contacts, communication on enforcement actions and county public health support with subject matter expertise, and tools to perform complaint investigations and contacts with businesses.

County staff is attending the city’s health team meetings to assist and collaborate, and city staff is taking part in county discussions for similar reasons, Oliver said.

County staff has been sorting through the complaints that don’t require an official investigation, or are not actually violations of the public health order.

Those types of complaints make up at least one-fourth of the volume coming into the county, according to Oliver.

Data recently provided to the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners indicated that more than 70% of complaints are occurring in the city.

Oliver said the city will use the county database to extract trends and identify focal points in the field.

The majority of complaints are originating from behavior in restaurants and from those who are concerned about people not wearing face coverings, according to Oliver.

There have been a small number of businesses that have been challenging and have required more frequent visits as public health orders have come down.

Some have been issued notices of violation of the county public health order, which is prosecuted through the county.

Scarlett’s, a restaurant and bar, along with The Gym in Obermeyer Place, have been cited for allegedly violating aspects of the public health order.

However, Oliver said the majority of restaurants are working cooperatively with staff to establish systems to help ensure ongoing compliance with the public health orders.

“I feel like we are making good progress,” he said. “There have been significant improvements in the business community.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com


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