Test rejection puts Aspen at the center of pandemic politics
Breaking down what Owens, owners of Aspen Laboratories have to say about their stance on recent COVID testing rejection
The names Candace Owens and Suzanna Lee have been intertwined ever since an email exchange between them went public Wednesday night, and that’s where their similarities end in a debate that has erupted over playing politics during the pandemic.
After she received an email Wednesday from Lee denying her a COVID-19 test, Owens has posted on social media about it and appeared on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” blasting Lee’s decision to turn Owens away because of her well-publicized dismissal of taking vaccinations and wearing masks during the pandemic.
Lee and business partner Isaac Flanagan own and operate Aspen Laboratories, which does business as Aspen COVID Testing downtown. They have maintained the decision to not test Owens was made by a private company looking out for its employees’ safety and not wanting to test someone they argued has used her influential stage to prolong the pandemic.
Interviews conducted this week with Owens, who is in town through the weekend, and Lee and Flanagan show how far apart they are about what actually happened.
Owens maintains the decision was made strictly because of politics. Lee and Isaac say politics had no part in their decision.
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When The Aspen Times asked both sides about how this decision affected the town’s public health, here’s what they had to say.
Said Flanagan: “We did direct her to testing resources. This was never about denying someone access testing. We’re still pro-testing, and we started the testing facility with no government funding — no funding from the state, local or federal level. We went into our own pocketbooks and worked without a salary for a better part of a year. That’s how pro-testing we are. So pro-testing, that we were devastated to learn in November there was no way to get a test in Aspen in under a week. So that’s how pro-testing we are. And we directed her to a really fine resource.”
In her email to Owens, Lee suggested Owens use another testing service that was available in Aspen at the time, where free tests are administered by Pitkin County Public Health.
“The only other local testing option is the free kiosk by city hall. They mail their tests to Texas and have inconsistent result times, do not take appointments so its walk in only midday weekdays in their back alley,” the email said.
While that was the only other option available Wednesday, the county announced Friday that another free testing site, located at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s cellphone lot, will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m., Monday through Saturday, while El Jebel Community Center will reopen its testing service starting Sept. 13.
Owens, meanwhile, argued Lee was putting the Aspen community’s health at risk by not giving her one of its rapid tests. Owens said she travels extensively and must be tested often. In order for her to attend Friday’s Jazz Aspen Labor Day Experience concerts, venue protocols required that she either show proof that she had either tested negative or had been vaccinated.
“And in this particular regard, irrespective of what you think about my stance on vaccinations, I’m following COVID measures in Aspen,” Owens said. “I’m following COVID measures when I go to venues, when I go to events. I’m listening to what people want done. So if her goal is to keep the Aspen community safe … shouldn’t you say this a good thing that unvaccinated people are at least being responsible to make sure that they’re not spreading the virus?”
Owens found another way to get tested — by a private physician. The test came back negative, she said.
Politics and the pandemic
Owens has regularly cited the email Lee sent to her Wednesday to make her case that she was turned away because of her political views. Lee’s email read in part, “We cannot support anyone who has pro-actively worked to make this pandemic worse by spreading misinformation, politicizing and DISCOURAGING the wearing of masks and actively dissuading people from receiving life-saving vaccinations.”
In a text message to the Times on Friday, Owens said: “This test was cancelled, as her email stated, because of my politics and nothing else.”
In an interview Thursday, Flanagan and Lee said their decision to turn away Owens was not politically motivated, yet Lee did admit stances would be taken.
Lee said, “I don’t believe my email was that political. For me, the issue is somebody else politicizing this virus. We do not want to politicize COVID. We do not believe it is a political issue. We are not taking a political stance. The stance that we are taking is only being in the trenches every day at the frontline of this pandemic. The only political stance we will ever take is against anybody that denies or minimizes the risk of this virus, particularly publicly.”
Owens said Lee made a mistake she won’t acknowledge.
“Human beings, we all mess up,” Owens said. “But when you get caught doing something wrong, it’s so much easier and painless to just say sorry and own it. They could have said, ‘We’ve been overwhelmed, it’s been a long week, I wish we should have handled things differently, we’ll use this in the future to be better.’”
There are other points of contention.
Lee said Owens had registered for VIP concierge service to be tested at a hotel. Owens said she is staying at the private residence of a major donor to her nonprofit Blexit Foundation.
“I am not staying at a hotel. I have never been staying at a hotel. And I therefore never booked a test at a hotel which made her staff feel unsafe. That explains why the email she sent my team never mentioned a hotel. This is literally a made up pathological lie that is attempting to victimize her and the staff.”
Viewers of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” on Thursday also heard Owens suggest Aspen Laboratories receives public funding, which could give rise to a discrimination claim. Lee and Flanagan said their business has been supported strictly by “personal finances” and they’ve received no public dollars. County Manager Jon Peacock also confirmed the business received no local or state support. There is no record of Aspen Laboratories of Aspen COVID Testing receiving any federal funding through the Payroll Protection Program, as well.
A former business ally of Aspen Laboratories, Rocky Mountain Labs in Englewood, received $112,400 in PPP funding in April 2020 to cover payroll. The loan has been paid back in full, according to federal records. When contacted Thursday, a Rocky Mountain Labs employee said the company has “nothing to do” with the Aspen business.
Whether Owens decides to ratchet up the issue through litigation or elsewhere is another question. One of her biggest gripes is that Lee made out her business to be the only option in town, other than the one behind City Hall.
“Personally, I’m not interested in going after it because I resolved it,” Owens said. “But people are saying to me that you have a responsibility to go after them. … They said, ‘But what about the average person?’ Think about that person who has no money and is being discriminated against in the same fashion … and somebody else that didn’t have the same economic views as me needed that test, and she turned them down because she didn’t like their views.”
“It’s really not OK what she did. I’m teetering like it’s a public responsibly to go after and make an example of this facility and say ‘you can’t do this.’ Yes, I’m fine, but other people don’t have the economic resources to be treated like this.”
Lee said she never expected her email to be made public, and Flanagan said the company has been inaccurately portrayed by critics of the decision.
“We don’t know what your personal beliefs are and we don’t care,” Flanagan said. “We welcome every person who walks into our center.”
Lee said, “We didn’t ask for this. This isn’t a reflection of who we are or how we do business.”
Owens, however, countered that they must have Googled her name and found out who she was before rejecting her business. On her application, she registered under her legal name of Candace Farmer.
“I signed up under Candace Farmer. It wasn’t Candace Owens that signed; it was Candace Farmer. Nobody knows Candace Farmer. Nobody knows that is my married name, but you could determine that if you Googled ‘Candace Farmer.’ The first thing that would pop up is ‘Candace Owens.’ ”
Lee and Flanagan said they don’t know how her name was flagged and did not want to discuss matters about individuals. The two also said they’d rather see the public sector take over all testing responsibilities, but that didn’t happen until last last year and now the number of public sites has been reduced.
“We wish testing wasn’t a private enterprise,” Lee said. “We wish there was widely available public testing. That is the problem here. The problem is that we’re running a private business that we wish we didn’t have to run.”
The clinic opened in December in response to a lack of widespread, rapid testing availability, they said.
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