A majority of Aspen City Council wants to establish a dedicated zone in the downtown core in which everyone must wear a facial mask in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, which scientists say is highly contagious through airborne particles.
During their regular meeting Tuesday, four members of council supported a “mask zone,” which would likely cover the downtown core and other high pedestrian areas.
“There are so many people walking around streets crowded not wearing facial coverings,” said Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who first suggested a mask zone. “It’s not authoritarian, it’s not a political statement but a public health issue.”
He, along with his fellow council members, expressed concern that COVID-19 cases are on the rise in the tri-county area, including Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties.
Mayor Torre said he sees most businesses and restaurants complying with public health orders but many of their customers, mostly visitors to the area, are not.
“It comes down to containment and cooperation,” he said, “and we need everyone to be vigilant at this time.”
City Manager Sara Ott briefed council on the spike in cases in recent weeks and that it’s “big enough to be concerned.”
She added that officials are starting to discuss what stronger social distancing plans and public health orders will look like if COVID-19 cases continue to rise locally.
Council member Rachel Richards, who supports a mask zone, said just like the lack of guidance from President Donald Trump on the facial covering issue, there is no direction from Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
She received support from her fellow council members to send a letter to Polis asking that there be a statewide order mandating a unified mask law and therefore eliminating any ambiguity among jurisdictions.
“I look at it as a patchwork quilt,” she said. “It’s very confusing. … I’m starting to think that it’s our governor saying it’s up to our cities and counties.”
The current rule in Pitkin County and the city of Aspen requires that masks must be worn outdoors if a person cannot maintain more than a 6-foot distance from someone not part of their household for 10 minutes or longer.
In addition, facial coverings must be worn inside all buildings that are open to the public, except restaurants when people are sitting down at a table but they must be worn when walking around in the establishment.
Aspen resident Marc Friedberg told council during public comment Tuesday that he is worried about a surge in cases and the capacity of Aspen Valley Hospital to handle patients.
He added that there is confusion among the public on what the rules are for facial masks.
“My concern is I don’t believe we as a community are acting (on masks) enough,” Friedberg said. “I would urge the council to think seriously about getting more aggressive.”
Both the Pitkin County Sheriff and the Aspen Police Department have repeatedly stated it is not their officers’ job to enforce the public health order, or what criminal statute would be used.
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor was walking in the downtown core earlier this week observing how many people were wearing masks.
He said Wednesday that most people were wearing masks during his observations, and explained that it’s difficult to enforce a complicated, multi-layered public health order. (See Q&A on page A5.)
Council member Ann Mullins said she thinks masks should be required all the time for people who are in a zone from Monarch to Hunter streets and Main Street to Cooper Avenue.
City staff next week is expected to present geographical zone boundaries and language for an amendment to the municipal government’s existing ordinance and public health order.
Ott said she would like to get the zone information, along with what enforcement looks like, to the public early before any decisions are made.
Council member Skippy Mesirow said during Tuesday’s meeting that he wanted more details on what masks are most effective and whether the city should require those to be worn.
Mesirow also said mask wearing is only one of the five commitments of containment that local officials are asking people to comply with, and that they all need to be adhered to.
Aspen City Attorney Jim True said it’s difficult to enforce a rule that involves people’s relationship to one another, as well as their proximity to each other and for how long.
“The zone in certain respects would fix that,” he said. “It takes away ambiguity, for instance, on the family household aspect.”
He noted that he would expect enforcement would start with education, then a warning and possibly a ticket for repeat offenders.
The current ordinance says that not wearing a face covering is subject to a $50 fine for the first offense, $250 for the second and a mandatory court appearance for any subsequent offense and a fine of as much as $2,650.