Professionally managed short-term lodging now allowed at 50% capacity; previous violations reported

A woman runs across an empty street in downtown Aspen on Saturday, April 4, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

On Wednesday, which marked the move into phase two of the county’s reopening strategy, short-term lodging controlled or licensed by a professional property manager only was permitted to start operating again at a restricted occupancy of 50% of “the total number of keyed units” or less, according to the current public health order.

This was the first ease of restrictions on lodging in Pitkin County, as new and existing short-term lodging reservations in Pitkin County have been suspended/canceled as a result of the coronavirus pandemic for more than two months.

Under the county’s March 23 “stay at home” public health order, visitors were directed to return home immediately by the “fastest and safest” available means, and all short-term lodging — meaning any lodging space, room or rental housing options available for 30 days or less — was mandated to remain closed. The county’s definition of short-term lodging includes developed campgrounds, hotels, motels, short-term rentals through Airbnb and VRBO, bed and breakfasts, condo-hotels, lodges and retreats.

Even as the county moved into its “safer at home” iteration of the order May 9, visitors and short-term lodging operations were not permitted.

But while short-term lodging was partially reopened under strict guidelines Wednesday and will mean more visitors to the Aspen-Snowmass area, some locals have already reported new visitors and occupied short-term rentals over the past two months — violating public health regulations and getting local law enforcement involved.

“There have been three short-term rental violations reported to us by neighbors or other property managers,” said Brian Olson, Snowmass police chief. “But it was probably going on more than we’ve been made aware of.”

According to Olson, these three violations were reported over the past three weeks. The visitors were from other parts of Colorado, and the property managers who rented to them told police they were unaware of the Pitkin County lodging guidelines at the time, Olson said.

Snowmass police did not write any tickets and the visitors were relocated out of the county within 24 hours of officers coming into contact with them.

“We don’t know if the rental agencies knew what they were doing or were just confused about the local public health orders,” Olson said. “But all were compliant and cooperative after we talked with them and that’s what’s most important.”

Outside of Snowmass, Aspen and Pitkin County law enforcement have seen a similar number of short-term rental violation reports.

Aspen police reported less than five calls related to actual and/or suspected short-term rental violations during the COVID-19 crisis up until Wednesday. Pitkin County reported five calls (from unincorporated areas of the county) over the past month, with two turning out to be false reports and one to be an owner confused about what was allowed through the Pitkin County public health order in early May, according to county records.

Like Olson, Aspen and Pitkin County law enforcement have taken a similar, more education-based approach — which is their pre-COVID and during-COVID policing philosophy — to dealing with these violation reports.

For Bill Linn, assistant Aspen police chief, coming up with another way to ensure people comply with the current and future county public health orders would be a more appropriate way to deal with things like suspected short-term rental violations versus police intervention.

“Sending a cop out to the door because a vehicle with an out-of-state license plate shows up is not the right way to handle that,” Linn said. “I’d love to see another system for compliance set up.”

As previously reported, the county is working on building a staff who will serve as compliance officers as well as offer guidance on coronavirus-related rules. But in the meantime, if someone is concerned or believes violations to Pitkin County’s current public health order are taking place, they’re still encouraged to call local law enforcement.

“I think the biggest message is if you see a violation, call your local police department or the county’s non-emergency number,” said Alex Burchetta, director of operations at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. “We take every call for service just as seriously as anything else.”