Pitkin County sheriff will intervene in isolation, quarantine cases

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo sits at his office desk.
Aspen Times File

Visitors and residents who defy COVID-19 quarantine and isolation orders will have to answer to Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies, who will arrest and possibly jail scofflaws, the sheriff said Tuesday.

“I prefer to enforce egregious violations,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo told county commissioners. “Violating a quarantine (or isolation) order — I think those are what I’m prepared to prosecute.”

Meanwhile, the county’s public health director told commissioners she plans to propose a stricter facemask law to members of the Board of Health later this week. The proposal would eliminate the rule that says people must wear a facemask outside if they stop and talk to another person not in their household within less than 6 feet for more than 10 minutes, health director Karen Koenemann said.

In other words, if people not wearing a facemask outside stop to talk to someone not in their household for any length of time, they will need to mask up if the board approves the change, she said.

Koenemann also said she recommends people walking past another person within less than 6 feet wear a mask. However, riding a bicycle past people while not wearing a mask presents a low risk of virus transmission, she said.

Commissioners have pushed for stronger enforcement of public health order rules for weeks and were receptive to both ideas.

“I’d like to see an indoor/outdoor (facemask) ordinance,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “Just wear it.”

DiSalvo, however, said he will not instruct his deputies to walk around downtown and enforce facemask rules, which currently don’t require people to wear masks outside. He said he would defer that duty to Aspen police officers and Police Chief Richard Pryor, who has made it clear he won’t write tickets for facemask violations that are not egregious or willful.

Current county and municipal rules only mandate facemask use while inside businesses and public buildings. Aspen City Council, however, is contemplating a “mask zone” that would require facemasks both indoors and outdoors in the commercial core and beyond.

More serious violations of the public health order, however, will draw law enforcement attention and action, DiSalvo said Tuesday.

For example, deputies responded Saturday to concerns from public health officials that a visitor who’d tested positive for COVID-19 was said to be attempting to leave town on a plane. The man had been ignoring contact tracing investigators who were attempting to get a hold of him and check on his condition, he said.

Deputies checked flight manifests and put the word out at the airport that the man was trying to leave, but discovered no sign of him there. They then checked his hotel room and found him there, DiSalvo said.

The man admitted he’d contemplated leaving, but had changed his mind and was not in the process of trying to leave when deputies spoke with him, the sheriff said.

“We will bring in law enforcement as a last resort,” he said. “We will try and work with contact tracers first.”

After the meeting, DiSalvo told The Aspen Times that deputies will issue a ticket to those who defy quarantine and isolation orders — known as a non-custodial arrest — for violating the public health order. If the person continues to defy the order, ignores contact tracers who try to communicate with them and leaves isolation or quarantine, deputies will arrest the person and take them to the Pitkin County Jail, he said.

“We’re prepared to house somebody (in jail),” he said. “We will manage them on complete lockdown.”

Whether a visitor or resident, the defiant person will be jailed for seven days after they are no longer symptomatic or until they test negative for the virus, DiSalvo said.

A person who tests positive for COVID-19 is put into quarantine, while someone who has been exposed to another who tested positive for the virus also is put in quarantine. Public health officials take both orders seriously because either can lead to spread of the virus in the Aspen and Pitkin County communities, Koenemann said.

Since June 26, the county’s public health department has received 55 complaints about businesses violating the public health order, Koenemann said. Most of them — 73% — involve the city of Aspen, while 24% were in Pitkin County and 4% involved Snowmass Village businesses, she said.

When the department receives complaints, consumer protection specialists will visit the business and if they find a willful or egregious violation, they can issue an order to shut it down within 24 hours, Koenemann said.

If the complaint does not fall into those categories, officials will educate the business on the rules, then follow up two to three days later, she said. If the business is still not in compliance, they will issue a warning letter and follow up 24 hours after that.

If, upon the third visit, the business still isn’t compliant, Koenemann can issue a closure or cease-and-desist notice, or they can go to Pitkin County District Court and obtain a temporary restraining order, she said.

The Pitkin County Board of Health will address the proposed stricter facemask rule at its meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Thursday.

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