In the zone: Aspen now a face-mask city

The city of Aspen is now one of several municipalities in the country to establish a mandatory face-mask zone in which people are required to wear a facial covering at all times when in outdoor and indoor public spaces.

Aspen City Council on Tuesday approved an emergency ordinance that establishes the zone between Original/Neal Street on the east, Aspen Street on the west, Aspen Mountain to the south and the Roaring Fork River to the north, as well as Herron and Newbury parks, the No Problem Joe Bridge area and the base of Highlands’ transportation and commercial areas.

This zone encompasses the busiest areas of town, all of the core, main downtown parks and the Clark’s Market and post office areas.

The law takes effect Friday and will last until Nov. 4, the day after Election Day, unless amended by council between now and then.

The emergency ordinance was passed unanimously and is centered on science that suggests covering your mouth and nose prevents the aerosol spread of what has been described as a highly contagious virus.

Officials also are concerned that if cases of COVID-19 continue to increase in the region, the local economy will have to shut down like it did when the pandemic hit Aspen in mid-March, which has had devastating effects on businesses and workers.

Aspen Mayor Torre said while the city’s law enforcement is taking an educational approach before warning people, officers do have the authority to ticket people who do not wear a face mask in the zone.

“We hope everybody can just comply without having to get to enforcement,” he said during Tuesday’s regular council meeting. “This is a cooperative exercise for our community, and that is something that everybody — whether you live here or are visiting here you are here because of Aspen — so this is what we can do to support that. … We want to have a safe and successful summer and we need to have a safe and successful winter and this is a step in the right direction.”

Fines for violating the public health order are $50 for the first offense, $250 for the second offense and a mandatory court appearance for any subsequent offense with the penalties of as much as a $2,650 fine and one-year imprisonment or both per day for each violation.

On Monday during first reading of the ordinance, some council members were leaning toward an entire citywide mask zone, but due to concerns of enforcement in such a wide swath of geographical area, as well as government overreach, elected officials could not come to a majority consensus.

“My goal tonight was to make sure we have some type of a much more restrictive face-covering ordinance (and) even though it won’t stop the transfer of cases, it will succeed in substantially slowing the spread of the virus,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said. “It’s kind of like, everybody just needs to bite the bullet. We need to fight this thing really hard.”

The new law eliminates the current rule that masks only need to be worn if a person is going to be within 6 feet of another and are not part of the same household.

The mandatory mask zone is to simplify the message that facial coverings should be worn at all times when in public and near people.

There are no exemptions for those who are exercising, whether it’s running, biking, hiking or any other type of similar activity.

The mandatory mask zone is on the other spectrum of the city’s messaging in June when it had signs all over the downtown core that read, “When you’re outside let the mask slide.”

The city changed its messaging a month ago when town was invaded with visitors, many of whom are defying the mask ask.

Two California residents who said they visit Aspen in the summer lamented during public comment that they are seeing defiance and disregard for the plea to wear facial coverings on area trails, specifically narrow single-track ones like Hunter Creek and the Ute.

“I was just a little surprised with the degree of negligence by several of the users of these trails who do not feel it either necessary, or in fact found it offensive when we have asked them to put on a face covering,” Justine Cunningham told council.

Torre said he will reach out to Pitkin County officials and open space and trails rangers to see if there can be collaboration in getting compliance on trails outside of city limits.

Torre, Mullins and Councilwoman Rachel Richards made note at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting that tensions in town seem to be running high.

“Unfortunately, I’m seeing more confrontational behavior, whether it’s on the trails or even today in the grocery store,” Mullins said. “This is a really, really stressful time and I would say to keep having patience and understand that your good day may be somebody else’s worst day.”

Torre also asked for compassion and he began the meeting by asking everyone on the virtual meeting to take a deep breath before engaging in what would be a difficult conversation.

Council approved the new mandatory mask-zone ordinance while agreeing to certain exemptions like those who are stationary while eating al fresco, as well those indoors.

However, if people are entering or exiting a restaurant or moving about in the establishment, they must wear a face mask.

There also are exceptions for people younger than 10 years old and those who have medical conditions. 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.

City staff will begin ordering signs to mark the physical environment in the established zone.

Council members Tuesday said they support semi-permanent street pavement painting and sidewalk markings.

The cost estimate for the educational and communication signage is between $5,000 and $15,000 and could take between one and three weeks to implement, according to City Engineer Trish Aragon.

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