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Garfield County reports fourth COVID-19 death

Garfield County reported a fourth death from COVID-19 on Tuesday.

A man in his late 60s, according to a news release from Garfield County, is the latest death. Garfield County reported its third death from COVID-19 on July 2.

“We regret having to report yet another life lost to COVID. As a community, we must all take individual actions to slow the spread, otherwise our numbers will continue to climb. Each life lost is one too many,” Public Health Director Yvonne Long said in a news release.

Garfield County has reported 423 coronavirus cases as of midday Tuesday.

“The county has averaged over 49 cases a week for the past three weeks,” the news release states. “This is a marked increase from May when the county was experiencing approximately eight cases per week.

Gov. Polis extends COVID-19 relief orders, granting Colorado residents some flexibility in paying rent

Gov. Jared Polis extended COVID-19 pandemic relief orders for another month Sunday to ease pressure on residents struggling to pay rent and utilities bills and receive unemployment insurance payments.

Polis also granted county commissioners greater authority to impose restrictions on open fires.

The executive order on unemployment insurance claims for Colorado residents was aimed at speeding up claim processing for another month.

Public utility customers are to be allowed flexibility in making payments amid economic disruption due to the spread of COVID-19 in the state.

And Polis extended and amended his order that state agencies must help prevent evictions of tenants economically hurt during the pandemic.

Read the full story via The Denver Post.

Garfield county, state officials in close communication over virus spike

Garfield County Public Health is “at capacity” in terms of responding to and tracking the recent spike in new COVID-19 cases, conducting contact tracing and making sure the public stays informed.

And, while the county surpassed the number of cases in a recent 14-day period that could prompt a return to stricter requirements for businesses and group gatherings, so far it’s status-quo, public health officials said Friday.

“The state is aware of our increase in case numbers,” Carrie Godes, public health specialist for the county, said Friday. “We are working with them and doing the limited things that we can as a health department to control the spread.

But, “Public Health is at capacity and must turn to our broader community to bring the numbers back under control.”

Gov. Jared Polis pointed out in comments made Thursday about the move to the Protect Our Neighbors phase for reopening the state’s economy that government can control maybe 20% of the virus spread.

The other 80% falls on individuals and the business community to follow safety protocols, he said.

“Wear a damn mask,” Polis said at a news conference Thursday.

Just since July 3, Garfield County has seen 45 newly confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the cumulative total since the outbreak began in early March to 358.

Many of those newly reported cases date back based on symptom onset to mid-June. During the 14-day stretch from June 12 to 25, the county saw 83 new onset cases.

Some of the recent spike in cases can be attributed to the influx of tourists into the region, but not a lot, Godes said.

“It’s certainly a concern when we have a lot of people coming in and out from outside the area,” she said.

In a few cases, visitors have experienced symptoms while on vacation here and got tested locally, Godes said. But that’s a very small percentage of cases, she said, adding the vast majority continue to be workplace related and spread within family or household units.

A Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment variance that was granted to Garfield County on May 23 requires that, if the county exceeds 60 cases over a 14-day period, Garfield Public Health is to inform the state and implement plans to rein that number in.

The variance allowed restaurants, places of worship, gyms and fitness facilities to open at greater capacity (50% or as many as 175 people at a time) than the state would allow.

Since that time, though, the variance has become largely outdated with the statewide implementation of new public health orders that basically mirrored what Garfield County was granted.

“The state does provide a period for correction,” Godes said of the recent spike in new cases locally. “It does not mean that if you hit it once, that the variance is automatically withdrawn.”

The Protect Our Neighbors phase requires that counties apply to be given greater local control over certain restrictions. That can include allowing businesses to operate at full capacity, but with social distancing measures.

At this point, with 47 cases in the most recent 14-day period, Garfield County does not qualify, Godes said.

“Even though the variance was not revoked, these numbers are still alarming and cause for widespread community action,” she said. “In order to move into the next phase of reopening … a county must demonstrate stable or declining viral spread.”

That means “having difficult discussions and trying to determine the appropriate actions to take.”

In many ways, the latest spike in new cases — including a recent increase in new hospitalizations and one new death earlier this month — resembles the situation in March when the pandemic began, Godes said.

“Now more than ever we need to fall back on the only answers that we have, which is that individual actions make a collective difference,” she said.

That means wearing a mask in places of business and when in close contact with other people, socializing in small groups, staying 6 feet apart, getting tested if experiencing COVID-19 symptoms of fever, dry cough and difficulty breathing, and staying home when sick, whether it’s from the coronavirus or something else.

The latest surge in new coronavirus cases also has resulted in more hospitalizations in the more serious cases.

As of Friday, three Garfield County residents remained hospitalized, either locally or outside the county. Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs had two current COVID-19 patients, and Grand River Health reported Thursday that it had one new hospitalization.

Valley View’s ability to care for all types of patients, including COVID cases, remains strong, VVH spokeswoman Stacey Gavrell said.

“We are definitely concerned about the increase of COVID cases in the community, and we ask all of our community members to practice physical distancing, wear masks and wash hands not only for our individual and collective health, but to support our economic recovery and overall ability to return to essential activities such as school,” Gavrell said in a statement.

jstroud@postindependent.com

Pitkin County health order extended as facemask concerns dominate

Thursday’s Pitkin County Board of Health meeting featured much talk about facemasks and when to wear them and who should make those who don’t wear them wear them.

The board even passed a motion urging area municipalities to direct local law enforcement to increase enforcement of facemasks.

“We need to figure out an overall strategy (on facemasks),” said Aspen Mayor Torre, a member of the health board. “(The city of Aspen’s) mask ordinance has a lot of allowance and maybe we don’t want that.”

Meanwhile, the board extended the current public health order for another 30 days with minor tweaks that included the opening of libraries and that any performers must remain at least 25 feet away from audience members. In addition, the board clarified that all restaurant patrons not in the same group must remain 6 feet from other patrons, and that it’s not tables that must be 6 feet apart.

Otherwise, with COVID-19 cases increasing in Pitkin County, the health board decided to stay the course for another 30 days. That means group size remains capped at 50 people, restaurants will continue at 50% capacity and bars will remain closed.

“Overall, COVID-19 cases are increasing in Pitkin County,” said Josh Vance, an epidemiologist working for Pitkin County Public Health. Seven Pitkin County residents were confirmed positive for the virus Wednesday and five more were confirmed positive Thursday, Vance said.

The county has registered 23 new cases in the past 14 days, which averages to 130 cases per 100,000 residents, he said.

“That indicates we have significant spread of the disease,” Vance said. “We’ve seen a dramatic increase recently” and public health officials expect it to go up once the effect of Fourth of July becomes apparent in the coming weeks.

Those numbers don’t correspond to Pitkin County’s COVID-19 Community Report, which is featured on the county Public Health website, because of a two-day lag in reporting to the state, said Charlie Spickert, another county epidemiologist.

Of those positive cases involving Pitkin County residents, 28% were exposed through community spread, meaning the residents and contact tracers don’t know the source of the infection, Vance said.

“That’s always concerning,” he said.

Twenty-four percent of the cases were exposed through contact with people who recently traveled to Pitkin County, Vance said. Another 24% were exposed at work, while 20% were exposed through a household member or friend, he said. The rest were exposed through health care or parties.

A look at a small sample of 68 recently exposed Pitkin County cases showed that 37% of them were overweight, 31% had high cholesterol, 24% had heart-related issues, 12% had thyroid problems, 10% had sleep apnea and 9% had Type II diabetes, Vance said. The numbers of heart-related and thyroid patients were far higher than the national average.

The predominant strain of COVID-19 currently affecting Colorado and most of the world is one from Europe that mutated to develop a stronger spike that injects the virus into cells, Vance said. That is opposed to the strain from China, which featured a weaker spike that tended to break off during the injection process, he said.

The European strain is 10-times more infectious than the Chinese version, Vance said. Both, however, cause the same fatality rate, though the European one could cause more deaths because it infects more people, he said.

Also, there’s now “a lot of consensus” that COVID-19 is transmitted through the air, Vance said. The aerosol particles — about the width of a human hair — can linger in the air for minutes or hours and be passed through air conditioning ventilation to infect people more than 6 feet away from an initial cough, sneeze or exhalation, he said.

Finally, there’s also evidence that asymptomatic people produce more virus aerosols than those with symptoms, he said.

“Wearing a facemask is most effective (in protecting from infection) no matter where we are,” Vance said.

Those comments prompted a lengthy discussion by board of health members about facemasks in and around Aspen.

Health board member Linda Vieira said she recently was on a narrow, local hiking trail and saw many people not wearing masks. She said she didn’t want to admonish all of them and wondered how to go about gaining more facemask compliance from residents and visitors.

Fellow board member Brent Miller said he’d seen the same thing and seconded her concerns.

However, Jordana Sabella, who works for Pitkin County Public Health, pointed out that the applicable public health order does not require people outside on trails or walking down the street to wear facemasks unless they will be within 6 feet of a non-household member for more than 10 minutes. Facemasks are required inside businesses and public buildings, she said.

After the meeting, Spickert further clarified the point, saying that because COVID-19 appears to be transmitted through the air, people with compromised immune systems, are overweight or have other higher risk factors for the virus might want to wear a facemask outdoors.

Torre suggested possibly eliminating the 10 minute portion of the facemask rule.

Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who chaired Thursday’s board of health meeting, continued to urge Aspen Police and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office to crack down harder on those who don’t wear facemasks or practice proper social distancing.

“Law enforcement doesn’t want to get behind getting heavy-handed,” he said. “It’s time to have a meeting of the minds and have the chief of police and the sheriff in here.”

Miller suggested that police gently but firmly enforce the facemask rules, while Spickert thought that handing out special masks with “I Love Aspen” on them might be a less-heavy-handed solution.

Sheriff Joe DiSalvo and Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn told The Times earlier this week they don’t believe it is the job of local police to enforce the public health order. They both said their officers and deputies would continue to educate people on the rules, but that cracking down hard on facemask scofflaws goes against the community policing model embraced in Aspen and Pitkin County for nearly 50 years.

Moreover, both men said they didn’t know of a way to criminally charge someone for not wearing a facemask.

On Thursday, Assistant Pitkin County Attorney Richard Neiley clarified that point. He said police can write people misdemeanor criminal tickets based on state law for violating the public health order that are punishable by fines and possible jail time.

The same state law also provides a civil penalty, wherein a District Court judge can force someone into quarantine or isolation if the county’s public health director deems it necessary, as well as force a business to comply with health order dictates, Neiley said.

The Board of Health on Thursday strengthened language in the current public health order enhancing Public Health Director Karen Koenemann’s ability to do just that.

“That really is critical to (contact) investigation,” Koenemann said after the meeting.

jauslander@aspentimes.com

Pitkin, Eagle, Garfield counties move to regional testing strategy

A surge in demand for coronavirus testing with the uptick in new COVID-19 cases nationwide has prompted the western Colorado counties of Garfield, Eagle and Pitkin to manage testing on a regional basis.

Recent referrals for testing — including for people who may be worried but not necessarily symptomatic or at higher risk for serious illness — has caused a backlog of late in obtaining test results.

That wait, sometimes as long as eight days, minimizes the effectiveness of the testing strategy to contain and slow the spread of the disease, public health directors from the three counties said in a joint statement issued Thursday.

“We cannot test and trace our way out of this pandemic,” Heath Harmon, Director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, said in the tri-county news release.

Ultimately, he added, “We need greater compliance on prevention measures from all people in our communities, regardless of whether they are locals or visitors.”

To maximize the testing strategy’s effectiveness, public health departments in the three counties will now coordinate testing efforts to try to achieve great turnaround on test results.

“Testing is a key containment strategy to slow the spread of the disease,” the joint statement reads. “Surges in cases nationwide are stressing the testing components supply chain and the capacity at state and commercial labs cannot keep up with the demand.”

A plan to coordinate testing efforts regionally is being devised by a medical team made up of hospital and public health officials from the three counties.

Details, such as which of the counties would be prioritized for testing depending on rates of infection and other factors are still being worked out.

Ideally, test results need to be turned around within 48 hours to be effective in combating the spread of the disease, public health officials point out. But the increased demand for testing has overloaded test supplies and stressed the ability for state and commercial labs to keep pace, they said.

To ease that strain, the three counties will employ the following testing strategy until state and commercial laboratory capacity can achieve consistent turnaround times of 48 hours or less:

Testing is recommended for

People with symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including fever, cough or shortness of breath

People with symptoms and who are at greater risk for severe disease, including hospitalization and death (65 years of age or older, or who have chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, are immunocompromised, are pregnant, or are otherwise considered at high risk by a licensed health care provider)

People who are hospitalized with symptoms consistent with COVID-19

Those who have had close contacts with a confirmed COVID-19 case, as defined and recommended by a local public health agency

People within congregate settings where there may be a broader exposure to COVID-19, as determined by a local public health agency

Testing is not routinely recommended for

People who do not have symptoms and no known close contact exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case

People who are preparing to travel or recently returned from travel who do not have symptoms

Employees who have not had a known close contact exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case

People who are worried, but have not had close contact exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 case and do not have symptoms

People who have been confirmed previously and are being retested for release from isolation.

Officials also question the value, from a public health perspective, of people being tested for antibodies to determine if they previously had COVID-19 but are no longer symptomatic

“If you are currently sick, antibody testing cannot determine if that sickness is COVID-19,” according to the joint statement.

Antibody tests measure whether a person has antibodies from a virus, but only after they have recovered.

“These tests should not be done until the patient has been without symptoms for at least seven days and does not have a fever,” according to the release.

Also, “A positive antibody test does not provide complete assurance at this time that someone will be protected from a future COVID-19 infection, and people should continue to take precautions and adhere to (public health safety precautions).”

“We all wish this pandemic would end … (and) go back to our normal ways of living life,” Garfield County Public Health Director Yvonne Long said in the release. “The answer to keeping our economy is doable if we have everyone’s buy-in, but only doable if we have everyone’s buy-in.”

That includes wearing a mask in public when social distancing is not possible, staying 6 feet apart, washing hands regularly and staying home when sick.

“We can dramatically reduce spreading the virus,” Long said. “Those very basic actions that we are all getting used to are the ticket to getting back to a new normal.”

Colorado researchers to conduct clinical trial for potential coronavirus vaccine

Colorado researchers will participate in a clinical trial to test a potential coronavirus vaccine on 1,000 patients in the state, UCHealth and the University of Colorado School of Medicine announced Thursday.

The study will follow patients who receive doses of a vaccine developed by Moderna for at least a year to determine if the shot is safe and whether it prevents participants from contracting the COVID-19 respiratory disease, according to a news release.

It normally takes multiple years to roll out a vaccine, but such efforts are being fast-tracked in order to end the global pandemic.

“It’s really unheard of for any viral infection to have a vaccine progress at this rate,” said Dr. Thomas Campbell, an infectious disease physician at CU’s School of Medicine and University of Colorado Hospital, in a statement. “I’m certainly hopeful that we’ll have success, but the sad reality is that most vaccine candidates don’t turn out to be successful so we have to be prepared for failures as well.”

Read the full story via The Denver Post.

Roaring Fork Valley raises $12M for valley-wide COVID-19 aid

Just over $12 million has been raised in the Roaring Fork Valley for COVID-19 relief and recovery assistance, and nearly $8.5 million of it has been distributed to help 17,000 households from Aspen to Parachute.

“Our community is one of the most generous there is,” said Tamara Tormohlen, executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation, which has tracked the fundraising through its nonprofit and government partners. “That generosity is hopefully preventing people from going off the cliff (financially).”

The money has come mostly from private donations and government subsidies, including $3 million from Pitkin County, the town of Snowmass Village and the city of Aspen.

The ACF has directly received $6.7 million, with the bulk of that going into a rescue fund set up by Aspenites Bob Hurst, Melony Lewis and Jerry Greenwald who have fundraised $5 million from 100 donors.

“They deserve a lot of credit,” Tormohlen said.

The fund supports social service nonprofits that are providing humanitarian assistance during the crisis, helping individuals who fall through the cracks receive the assistance they need, and seek ways to address gaps that exist in the region due to the scale of issues, whether it is citizenship, mental health, financial or a litany of others.

Another $1.7 million has come from another 100 donors, including individuals, foundations and governmental entities to the ACF’s COVID-19 regional response fund, which distributes the money to various nonprofits from Aspen to Parachute in times of disaster.

Tormohlen noted that ACF contributions have tripled since this time last year.

Of the $12 million donated, about $8.5 million has been doled out, according to Tormohlen, with almost $6 million dedicated to economic assistance and $1.6 million in food.

The remaining has gone to other needs including legal aid, assistance for domestic violence victims and baby supplies.

Based on data that the ACF has collected, there were 50,000 people contributing to the workforce in the region prior to the pandemic, and 22,000 of them lost income once COVID-19 hit the tri-county area, which does not take into account about 4,000 people who are undocumented.

Tormohlen said when considering those who have received unemployment, 17,000 households were left without income support.

“That turns out to be the same as our level of support to people,” she said, adding that the average amount of assistance has been $800 per person.

The majority of people the assistance has helped are those on the front lines of the resort community like housekeepers and hospitality workers, as well as those who work in construction.

The ACF has been working closely with the county and the city of Aspen, the latter of which donated $450,000 directly to the foundation.

Part of that city money was a match to a $200,000 donation by local resident Mark Styslinger through the Altec Styslinger Foundation.

The city also gave the county $500,000 toward its COVID-19 relief program to provide financial relief to city of Aspen residents in the areas of housing, utility, food and childcare assistance.

Snowmass kicked in $200,000, the county contributed in $500,000 and $218,000 came from private donations, according to Nan Sundeen, director of human services for Pitkin County.

The relief program, which also was fueled by state and federal money, was suspended on July 1 after issuing nearly $2.3 million in assistance to more than 3,400 Pitkin County residents since late-March.

“We need to pause and work with our partners to find the best vehicle (to distribute the funds),” Sundeen said. “We need the time and really assess the need and if we are the best organization to do this.”

Both Tormohlen and Sundeen agree the need will continue as the pandemic is expected to continue into next year.

“We are working with our community partners on what happens if there is no more (federal) stimulus or unemployment,” Sundeen said. “That is going to be a significant hit to the community.”

Because of the $600-a-week federal unemployment payments through July and the one-time $1,200 stimulus check, requests for assistance tapered off in June.

The county doled out just over $1 million in March, compared to just $25,000 in June.

Of all the requests through the county, shelter was No. 1, with more than $1.7 million going toward that.

The county’s relief fund served as a short-term financial bridge that allowed thousands of residents the time and peace of mind to file unemployment claims, and it also allowed other community nonprofits to begin to set up relief programs.

The city also contributed $1.5 million from its housing fund to help with rent, mortgage and HOA assistance in the 3,000 deed-restricted units in the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority inventory.

Of that amount, $600,000 has been spent, according to Sundeen.

“We are reaching out to the city to see what they want us to do with that money,” she said, adding she expects requests to increase once the offseason hits, layoffs occur and public health orders potentially change in response to rising cases of COVID-19.

“We don’t know what happens at the end of August,” she said. “This is a very tender time for everybody because there is no roadmap, no crystal ball.”

Tormohlen echoed the economic uncertainty and acknowledged donor fatigue when crises are long-lasting.

“We are still assessing and still in that economic response mode,” she said. “We acknowledge the generosity but there is still plenty of room for giving because there is more need here.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com

Aspen Skiing Co. employees head COVID-19 relief effort

Aspen Skiing Co. employees are making a special push through their Caring for Community Fund to collect donations for COVID-19 relief in the Roaring Fork Valley.

Contributions made through July 15 will be matched by the Crown family, owners of Skico, through their Aspen Skiing Co. Family Fund at Aspen Community Foundation.

The goal is to raise at least $250,000 in community contributions, said Brenda O’Connor, executive director for Caring for Community.

“Each dollar is matched,” she said, referring to the Crown’s match. That would potentially raise $500,000.

The Caring for Community Fund was created in October 2016. A board of directors comprised of Skico employees oversees it.

All funds raised will go to nonprofit organizations addressing some aspect of COVID-19 relief. O’Connor said it is clear that some people in the region are still struggling even though the economy has reopened to a large degree after the stay-at-home order was lifted.

Some of the aid efforts undertaken by federal, state and local organizations have dried up. Meanwhile, some nonprofit organizations are struggling to meet demand because their funds are also “coming up short,” O’Connor said. “It’s pretty evident in the requests we’re getting.”

There are numerous signs in the region of the ongoing need and the rush to fill it. In a recent update about its efforts to feed hungry families and individuals, Lift-Up said it was providing emergency food bags to about 900 families per week at the height of the crisis in mid-April. During June, the number dropped to about 400 families fed per week from Carbondale to DeBeque, but that is still about four times the normal distribution number prior to the coronavirus.

“Demand seems to have leveled off at new numbers,” Angela Mills, Lift-Up executive director, said Wednesday. “However, we are anticipating needs going up as unemployment benefits go back to post COVID-19 allotment and rental assistance programs run out. Some clients went back to work for a short amount of time and are back to being unemployed or have gone back with not as many hours as before.”

Lift-Up has mobile distribution systems set up once per week in Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, New Castle, Rifle, Parachute and DeBeque.

Separate efforts are being made for weekly food distribution in Basalt and Aspen. At last word, about 325 families were picking up food distributed each Thursday at Basalt Middle School.

Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a Glenwood Springs-based organization founded by Latinos for Latinos this year, conducts regular surveys of its constituency.

“Rent support is still a need,” Alex Sanchez, a founder of the organization said Wednesday. “Our most recent survey suggests that only half have returned to work, with reduced hours.”

Voces Unidas is piloting a direct cash assistance program where community groups give direct aid to people to use as they best see fit. In addition, the organization is advocating for the state government to protect Latinos from evictions, he said.

Aspen Community Foundation performs a weekly COVID-19 Response Dashboard that estimates needs of residents from Aspen to Parachute and the relief being provided. The June 19 dashboard estimated a population of 88,000 and a workforce of 50,000 in the region.

An estimated 22,000 people lost employment income for at least some of the time since the coronavirus crisis started. That number didn’t include people who are undocumented.

Another estimated 4,000 undocumented residents of the region are considered at high risk of losing employment during the pandemic, according to the dashboard.

Although there are 26,000 people who have lost income or at high risk of losing their jobs, only 9,000 are receiving unemployment benefits, according to Aspen Community Foundation’s research of public data. So, 17,000 people are potentially without income support.

Meanwhile, about $8.4 million in assistance has been granted in the region through grants to nonprofits or directly to individuals, Aspen Community Foundation estimated. That includes government spending and philanthropic efforts.

Demand is expected to spike again if there is another economic shutdown because of growing COVID-19 cases.

The Caring for Community Fund is among the organizations that have awarded grants this year for COVID-19 relief efforts. The organization awarded $20,000 to Valley Settlement for its multi-pronged effort to aid families impacted by the coronavirus crisis; $10,000 to Catholic Charities, which helped families pay rent in May; $5,000 to Stepping Stone, which helped people with rent and utilities; and $8,000 to Aspen Family Connections to provide meat for an upper valley mobile food pantry.

It granted $3,500 to RESPONSE to help victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Cases have been on the rise since the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Healthy All Together, a midvalley nonprofit organization, received $3,500 to help its program to provide COVID-19 testing for uninsured residents of the region.

O’Connor said the organization’s board will select new grant recipients after the latest push for contributions, but all efforts will be COVID-19 relief. To make an effort to the Caring for Community Fund, see the related infobox.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Virus keeps two Aspen-area campgrounds closed for summer

Two U.S. Forest Service campgrounds in the Aspen area likely will remain closed all summer because they are too remote to be regularly disinfected for coronavirus, an official said Tuesday.

Concessionaires who operate campgrounds on behalf of the Forest Service asked the agency to keep Lost Man Campground — located up Independence Pass — and Elk Wallow Campground near Meredith (above Ruedi Reservoir) closed for the season because of their locations, and the agency agreed, said Kevin Warner, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.

Concessionaires currently clean campground bathrooms in the Aspen area two to three times a day, Warner told Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday. In addition, most area campgrounds will only allow people with reservations to camp in order to cut down on contact with hosts during the coronavirus pandemic, he said. The exceptions are campgrounds near the Maroon Bells, which allow some flexibility for people who just show up, Warner said.

Generally, Forest Service employees are seeing an increase in recreational users this year, probably because COVID-19 has canceled beach and overseas vacations, he said. In particular, Warner said he’s noticed a lot of new RVs in the area, which has translated into many first-time forest visitors and numerous violations of standard outdoor rules and regulations.

The Forest Service has increased patrols to combat the lack of compliance by newbies, he said.

The patrols also will be on the lookout for fires, which are currently only allowed in developed campgrounds in Pitkin County and the White River National Forest, Warner said.

Forest Service officials are gearing up for a dry summer in which the short-term forecast looks to involve higher-than-normal temperatures and below-average precipitation. The monsoonal flow from the Gulf of Mexico has not yet developed and may not develop, he said, which increases fire danger.

Most of the county, BLM and forest lands in the Aspen area and western Colorado are in Stage 1 fire restrictions.

Pitkin County commissioners urge stricter enforcement of pandemic rules; Sheriff, Aspen police say no

A majority of Pitkin County commissioners Tuesday urged local law enforcement to take a heavier hand in enforcing public health order rules in the Aspen area.

“I think handing someone a mask and handing someone a flier about what their obligations are and telling them they can and will be subject to a ticket for future violations is helpful,” Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said during the board’s work session.

Representatives of the Aspen Police Department and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, however, made clear to The Aspen Times on Tuesday that they have no intention of writing tickets or cracking down on face mask scofflaws in the city or the county.

“We’re here to assist, but I don’t think it’s our policing duty. I really don’t,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said in a phone interview. “I don’t think this is a law enforcement matter.”

Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn agreed.

“It would be very heavy-handed to have police officers with arrest powers (target someone) merely because their face mask is over their mouth but not their nose,” he said. “Where do you draw the line? At what point does a health violation turn into taking away someone’s civil rights?”

Moreover, both expressed concern about exactly how to charge a person for violating a public health order in the first place.

“Even if I wanted to write tickets, no one has told me what (criminal) statute we would use,” DiSalvo said. “Just not wearing your mask downtown — I don’t see a criminal statute for that.”

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who has repeatedly called for stronger enforcement of public health rules over the past couple months, cited recent local social media comments in broaching the enforcement subject again Tuesday at the county board’s weekly work session.

“I think we have people in the community who are insisting that we crack down, that we really get heavy with people who seem to be violating the rules,” he said. “So I’m going to ask … if we could get a report from local law enforcement (about) just how they’re responding (and) what sort of enforcement is being done.”

Poschman also brought up a “yellow card” system currently being used by Alaska Airlines to warn customers who refuse to comply with public health rules like face masks. He said he wasn’t sure if local law enforcement was using such a system, but that “it might just be a way (of saying) … we will be contacting you again if you don’t cooperate.”

The yellow card system — which can get non-compliant passengers banned from the airline — is already an accepted way of communicating with the public “and I’d love to put it forward,” he said.

Poschman also acknowledged that some residents don’t want Aspen to turn into a “police state” and that fining people for not wearing face masks could be counterproductive.

“So I think it’s time to hear from police and the sheriff so we can chart a way forward,” he said.

When interviewed after the work session, Linn said the yellow card idea is a way for a private business to decline to provide services under certain circumstances. The situation would become very different if used by police as a premise to take away a person’s civil rights, he said.

DiSalvo said he also isn’t clear how the idea would work.

“You give a yellow card, then what (do you give) the next time?” he said. “This isn’t a criminal action.”

Pitkin County contact tracing investigators have run into problems with potential contacts who hang up on them or otherwise refuse to cooperate, said Assistant County Manager Phyllis Mattice. The county Board of Health will look to strengthen language about enforcing contact tracing cooperation when it meets Thursday, she said.

Commissioner George Newman said it was “distressing” to hear that some contacts decline to talk to investigators, and suggested law enforcement take legal action against such refuseniks. Mattice said local law enforcement was “ready to be involved” when it came to such situations. But both DiSalvo and Linn said Tuesday they knew nothing about such cooperation.

“I’m still very uncomfortable involving police authority in enforcing (contact tracing investigations),” Linn said. “Just discussion of that makes me uncomfortable.”

Linn said his department’s general strategy in dealing with public health orders is to educate people and pass on flagrant violations by businesses to the Pitkin County Attorney’s Office, which can then take action.

“I think we consider it important for us to help people in situations like that,” he said. “We will provide masks to people, talk to them and offer education.”

However, using heavy-handed measures to enforce civil public health orders is not part of the community policing model Aspen police officers are expected to follow, Linn said.

“The community expects the police department to be reasoned, thoughtful, empathetic and patient,” he said. “(Cracking down on public health order violations) is absolutely way into gray territory.”

DiSalvo said one way his deputies might act in a stronger fashion is if someone “uses a cough to more or less assault somebody,” which becomes a criminal violation. Aspen police have cited two people since March for doing just that.

Another reason for a heavier hand might be a situation where COVID-19 infections were breaking out “like crazy” because of people disregarding social distancing or face mask rules, he said.

“But as of now, that’s not the case,” DiSalvo said. “Rolling things out through education is the way this community has worked for a long time, and I don’t see this as any different.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com