Jail possible in Aspen for health order violations, businesses could lose licenses
In extreme cases, individuals and business owners who defy public health orders in Aspen and Pitkin County could end up in jail.
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely told members of the Board of Health that recalcitrant business owners also could be hit with a “nuclear option” involving state revocation of the establishment’s liquor or retail food license.
“That is quite a blow to that business,” Ely said Thursday.
However, county and city of Aspen officials would far prefer to “adopt the traditional Aspen and Snowmass approach to law enforcement,” which first involves less confrontational measures like education and conversation, he said.
In fact, that will be the first step officials take after receiving a complaint about a public health order violation via the county’s non-emergency dispatch number or if spotted by a law enforcement officer, Ely said. The idea is to strive for voluntary compliance first.
If the person or business complies voluntarily, county officials would follow up and make sure there’s continued compliance, then close the complaint, he said. If the officials check back and the person or business does not continue to comply, they would provide additional education and follow-up to make sure, for example, that face masks are being worn or tables are properly spaced.
But if that carrot approach still doesn’t work, the county will break out the stick, Ely said.
“If there is resistance to compliance or not productive compliance, we can take it up a notch to the next step,” he said.
In the case of an individual, a law enforcement officer likely will have contacted the person first and will decide at the time to provide more education, write a ticket or arrest the person in the case of a situation that might pose a threat to another individual, he said. The offending person could eventually face a fine.
For businesses that continue to defy public health order guidelines, the county attorney’s office would first issue a cease-and-desist order, Ely said. The office might also file a complaint in Pitkin County District Court, where a judge could layer a court order on top of the public health order to obtain compliance.
“Or the court could decide to issue a different order,” Ely said. “It could close the business or even lead to confinement if it’s particularly egregious. That’s an ultimate last resort.”
If that still doesn’t do it, the state of Colorado has said it is “ready, willing and able” to assist the county in revoking a business’s liquor license or food retail license, he said.
Finally, the process doesn’t have to include all of those steps, Ely said. The county can go hard at a business immediately if an imminent threat to public health exists.
Ely said the county is following up on all complaints it’s received, though most are “not best addressed by clubbing someone over the head.”
However, the county is prepared to go to court in one particular instance and plans “to do so at the beginning of business tomorrow,” Ely said Thursday.
Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock later said the county was not planning to go to court Friday, though a complaint against one particular business could be filed soon. He declined to say what Aspen business the possible court action might be filed against.
The main compliance problems have been with restaurants, Ely said.
“When these establishments are open, there’s a relaxation, almost like it was before the COVID hit,” he said. “It kind of builds on itself.”
He suggested that Board of Health members consider curtailing restaurant hours of operation considering bars currently are not allowed to be open in Pitkin County.
“If it’s midnight (and the restaurant is still open), you’re running a bar,” Ely said.
Aspen Mayor Torre and health board member Brent Miller both said they’d seen many visitors around Aspen not wearing masks, practicing social distancing or otherwise making any effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The Board of Health took no action Thursday to limit restaurant hours of operation.
Still, bar openings are on the horizon.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis amended the state’s health order Thursday to allow bars across the state to open at 25% capacity. However, that change will not be allowed to immediately go into effect in Pitkin County, said Public Health Director Karen Koenemann.
The Board of Health will talk about opening Aspen and Pitkin County bars at its June 25 meeting, though it is far from certain they will be allowed to open at that time. That’s because the state hasn’t yet issued guidance on exactly how bars would be allowed to open yet, Peacock said.
Aspen-area museums, however, will almost certainly be allowed to open June 26 after the governor’s new health order Thursday allowed it, Koenemann said. The county previously wanted to allow museums to open under the variance the state granted the county last month, but for some reason it was not allowed, she said.
“Bars are definitely more risky than museums,” Koenemann said.
Pitkin County is in the process of hiring two consumer health protection specialists, who will be charged with providing support, education and compliance with public health orders to businesses in unincorporated Pitkin County, Snowmass Village and Basalt, said Jannette Whitcomb, an environmental health specialist with the city of Aspen.
Aspen will hire two more such specialists to support Aspen businesses, she said.
In addition, the county is setting up a hotline (970-429-6186) that will serve as a clearinghouse for COVID-19 public health order information and also allow people to leave messages about possible public health order violations, Whitcomb said. It will provide information in English and Spanish about what to do if you need to be tested for COVID-19, how to obtain other information about the virus, business-related coronavirus information and will provide the ability to leave a complaint about possible public health order violations.
The hotline should be up and running by mid-next week, Whitcomb said.
More pressing violations that require immediate attention can be dealt with through the county’s non-emergency dispatch line at 970-920-5310.