Mandatory mask order could extend beyond Aspen’s downtown core

To clear up any confusion of where and when to don face masks to slow the spread of COVID-19, a majority of Aspen City Council agreed Monday to establish a zone that includes a wide swath of the downtown where masks are mandatory indoors and outside.

Council, which brought up the mask zone concept last week, is leaning toward a “central zone” that’s bounded by Original/Neal Street on the east, Aspen Street on the west, Aspen Mountain to the south and the Roaring Fork River.

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

There are other options that some council members favored but the majority directed City Attorney Jim True to include the central zone in what will be part of an emergency ordinance that elected officials will consider next week.

Council members want more feedback from the public on the city’s online portal that surveys people’s opinions on the issue before council chooses a zone.

Since the time the portal opened Friday to Monday at noon, had 800 surveys completed and 2,000 people had visited the website, said Alissa Farrell, the city’s administrative services director.

The central zone came in third in terms of preference, bested by 26% of respondents wanting the entire city to be in a mask zone and 22% saying they prefer no zone at all.

The inner zone, which includes just the downtown core, came in just slightly below the central zone at 17.4%.

Whichever zone is selected, council members agreed that if scientific data show that faces masks slow the spread of COVID-19 because it travels through the air, it’s worth it to keep people safe and the economy open.

“It’s not like we don’t know what’s happening. You can see it across the country of states opening too soon, states that have lapsed,” Councilwoman Ann Mullins said. “This is only getting worse and masks continue to be the best way to protect others.”

A zone also removes any question of what the rule is in Aspen, which makes it easier to enforce and fewer people claiming they are naive to the local public health order.

It would require wearing face masks at all times in the zone, with exceptions for age, medical condition, being inside a private residence or while seated at a restaurant dining table.

Some communities — including Breckenridge as well as Napa Valley, West Hollywood and Santa Monica, California — have transitioned to mandatory face-covering zones to simplify what the community’s expectations are.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis last week issued an executive order mandating face coverings in indoor public areas around the state.

Aspen officials reported that regular contacts with community members via email, telephone and in person suggest that people are not aware of the details of the current ordinance around face coverings.

The local public health order in Pitkin County and the city of Aspen requires that masks must be worn outdoors if a person cannot maintain more than a 6-foot distance from someone not part of their household for 10 minutes or longer.

In addition, facial coverings must be worn inside all buildings that are open to the public, except restaurants when people are sitting down at a table but they must be worn when walking around in the establishment.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards said there is too much ambiguity in the current rule, and visitors aren’t appreciating the seriousness like locals are.

“The guests are welcome and they are appreciated and we try to do all we can to accommodate and entertain and offer value for the vacation money they’re spending, but including sickening our community or disregarding our health rules are not one of the amenities you can buy,” she said. “The general public has become so incensed, you know the comment I’ve heard is, ‘What if I go out to eat at one of these restaurants in a parking space but then everyone walking down the sidewalk coughing and laughing and talking isn’t wearing a mask?’

“So, we’ve run into contradictions, we’re having loopholes or even flaws, but it’s out of an abundance of caution.”

To make it clear to the public, the physical environment in an established zone would include making semi-permanent street pavement painting and sidewalk markings, along with several dozen signs, temporary bollards and other changes to serve as visual clues to individuals.

Messaging would occur through newslettters, zone area maps, postcards, social media, signs at the airport and partnering with Aspen Chamber Resort Association and the local housing authority.

In terms of the notion that educational efforts should be left only to law enforcement is flawed when seeking compliance due to other service needs in the community that need to be provided at the same time, according to Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor.

He advocated in a memo to council that the city maintain the approach of first educating, then warning and then going into ticket mode for offenders.

Some communities are taking the education approach, but others, mostly in California, are taking more draconian approaches like West Hollywood where the first offense is $300 and in Napa County, as much as $5,000 for businesses.

The current city of Aspen mask ordinance calls for a $50 fine for the first offense, $250 for the second and a mandatory court appearance for any subsequent offense and a fine of as much as $2,650.

However, little to no enforcement has occurred due to the complexity of the local public health order and the APD’s commitment to community policing.

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