Pitkin County Board: We want law enforcement ‘on the same page’ for mask enforcement

Jason Auslander
Aspen Times
Getty images.
Woman made mask self prevention ill made of fabric for dust and germs pm 2.5, virus covid 19

Pitkin County commissioners continued Tuesday to try to push local police and sheriff’s deputies to play a larger role in enforcing facemask and other public health order laws in Aspen and the county.

“My level-headedness is becoming askew,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who urged law enforcement to “get on the same page” as county board members. “I’m a little disappointed we’re not having this conversation (with law enforcement) today.

“We need to tighten up how that’s working.”

Commissioners Greg Poschman and George Newman seconded those comments, with Poschman saying he expects a conversation with Aspen police representatives and Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo to happen soon.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, however, urged patience.

“This is a more complicated conversation,” he said. “The sheriff is independently elected. You can’t direct the (Aspen) Police Department. It’s not your police department.”

Peacock asked if they expected police officers to trail people and time how long they talk to people, then ticket offenders if the conversation lasts longer than 10 minutes.

The current county and city ordinances require people to wear a facemask in public buildings and outside if they plan to talk to someone not in their household from less than 6 feet away for more than 10 minutes.

“This is a bigger challenge,” Peacock said, suggesting the possible need for “mask zones” if elected officials wanted stronger rules.

Countered Newman, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way and now I’m not seeing a will.”

Pitkin County Board Chairman Steve Child said he’s heard from people begging for stronger enforcement on people who don’t wear masks “but we don’t have the tools to do it.”

Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn and DiSalvo have repeatedly said they prefer to educate people and would only be spurred to action if a person’s behavior is particularly egregious.

District Attorney Jeff Cheney said essentially the same thing Tuesday after the commissioners’ meeting.

“We want to educate and warn, and prosecution is the last result (if the action) is flagrant, willful and wanton,” he said. “It’s not to resort to criminal sanctions at first.”

Peacock said the county will invite DiSalvo and the Aspen Police Department to next Tuesday’s work session and possibly have a conversation about enforcement then.

Another necessary conversation is one with the Aspen and Pitkin County community about isolation and quarantine, Peacock said. There have been reports of people not cooperating with contact tracing investigators, which must occur in order to control the virus and keep Aspen open, he said.

“If we don’t cooperate as a community, we’re not going to keep this virus under control unless we shut everything down, which isn’t sustainable,” Peacock said.

Under the current Pitkin County public health order, the public health director can force people under penalty of law to cooperate with quarantine and isolation orders. They can be charged with a high-level misdemeanor punishable by as long as 18 months in the county jail and a $5,000 fine.

Based on testing statistics from Aspen Valley Hospital, the community currently has a 7% positive rate with about 50 tests still pending, said Dave Ressler, AVH CEO. He also cautioned that those who test negative after either experiencing symptoms or being exposed to a person who tested positive for the virus should remain at home for five to seven days because the false negative rate is between 20% and 25% because the virus takes time to develop in the body.

As of Tuesday, Pitkin County had 21 people under isolation and 36 people under quarantine, Peacock said.

The county had 24 people test positive for the virus between July 5 and July 11, Ressler said. That exceeds the 18 positive tests-per-week-threshold the county had to maintain when the state of Colorado granted a variance in May that allowed hotels and restaurants to open at limited capacity. However, that variance doesn’t necessarily apply anymore, according to comments at last week’s county Board of Health meeting. That’s because the state’s current public health order allows Aspen’s current level of operations and supersedes the variance from nearly two months ago, Peacock said.

Public Health Director Karen Koenemann was checking Tuesday with the state public health department to make sure of that fact, Peacock said.

Otherwise, the county is concerned about the opening of schools in the coming weeks and the upcoming winter season, he said.

The state is providing no guidance to local school districts on the opening question, which is leading the districts to consult with local public health departments on the question, Peacock said. County officials were surprised when they recently learned of the lack of guidance on schools, he said.

“We’ve had little advice from the state regardless,” Newman said.

Commissioners on Tuesday agreed to send a letter to the state urging more guidance on the subject of schools.

The county also wants a statewide containment strategy for the winter, when the cold will force people inside and spread of the virus could become more prevalent, Peacock said.

“This winter’s going to be a lot harder,” McNicholas Kury said.

On a positive note, Peacock said county sales tax revenue was up 3% in May over May 2019, though it is still down 3.6% over last year.

The numbers indicate a significant level of activity in Aspen, he said.

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