Wheeler to require negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination

Aspen City Council agrees to tests to provide more flexibility when performances come to the city-owned facility

The majority of Aspen City Council on Monday walked back last week’s decision to only allow people into the Wheeler Opera House during performances if they can show proof of vaccination for COVID-19 and reject the flexibility of showing a negative test within 72 hours of entry.

Council agreed during Monday’s work session to follow the Wheeler Advisory Board recommendation that all people at the opera house have either a full COVID vaccination or negative 72-hour COVID test, as well as put in place a mask mandate in the city-owned facility.

When the mandate takes effect is unknown. A resolution is expected to be voted on by council during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

Council was originally scheduled to pass the new mandate as an emergency ordinance this week but City Attorney Jim True said it is not necessary since the municipal government has authority to manage its facility as it sees fit.

The new policy affects individuals who are in the building for a performance or private rental, which includes staff, volunteers, attendees and performers.

There are 57 days until the end of the year that the Wheeler has performances and private rentals booked, with roughly 17 days of normal operations where the theater is empty and the visitors center and lobby box office are open to the public, according to Assistant City Manager Diane Foster.

City Manager Sara Ott noted last week during council’s deliberation that the federal government has not yet released the rules for the future vaccination and testing requirement for businesses who employ 100 or more people.

She also noted if a vaccination requirement was enacted for all Wheeler volunteers and staff, there could be operational impacts.

The Wheeler has 14 full-time staff and employs an additional 24 intermittent staff, according to Foster.

“For planning purposes, we should assume some of those 38 employees are unvaccinated,” Foster wrote in a memo to council. “The greatest impact to staff could be having job-related requirements different from other staff. While many departments have job-related safety requirements, if there is a Wheeler vaccination requirement, senior management anticipate some staff will object, quit, or the city would be forced to terminate employment. A vaccination or negative test requirement gives staff more flexibility.”

City Councilwoman Rachel Richards voiced concern about allowing unvaccinated people into the venue because they are a threat to public health.

“I realize I might well be a minority on this council and maybe in the public in general, but I’m kind of tired of suffering the tyranny of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are why I am wearing a mask every day again,” she said. “I’ve had to ask myself, and I know that this is a contrarian opinion, but I would rather have reduced services and reduced staff if folks are not taking this seriously.”

Reviewing the proof vaccination and test results, as well as administering those tests will be done by a third party so the city is not obtaining or retaining medical information of individuals, Ott said.

Council agreed to that stipulation, and Mayor Torre said he will contact some third party testing companies to see if they can provide onsite or near the venue rapid tests at an affordable price.

“This is another difficult discussion, and I think we were all hoping to be done with this, but we are not,” he said. “I guess the one thing we can say is this is a step in the direction of health and safety in the Wheeler Opera House.”

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