One thing was made clear during the Aspen Chamber of Commerce Association board of directors meeting: COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
It was a bit of an ironic motif, considering Tuesday morning’s meeting was the first one held in person since the start of the pandemic, when public health mandates went into effect, shuttering such gatherings.
While Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella assured more than once during her presentation to the ACRA board that everyone in her department was committed to avoiding a sequel to such extreme measures, she also invited discussion surrounding what business sector leaders would like to see to address the uptick in cases coming off a busier-than-ever summer.
Although during the first three weeks or so of July, the number of new cases in the previous seven days tended to remain in the single digits, by July 22, that measurement ticked up to 14. By Aug. 3, that metric shot up to 37.
“Masks are back,” Sabella said matter-of-factly. “Delta has come back and become the prominent variant… What we’re seeing is vaccination no longer prevents transmission. You can get COVID, you can pass it along to others. So masking is really back as that added strategy.”
But what happened next surprised Sabella a bit. Instead of the business leaders in the room decrying the idea of masks, several lobbied for a return to mandates. Educating people about a requirement coming from the local government would be easier to manage at the individual business level than employees being put in the difficult position of explaining to a customer one shop’s mask policy that may differ from its neighbors, they maintained.
Jeff Bay, ACRA board assistant treasurer and one of the members who represents the lodging sector, spoke particularly passionately to that effect.
“My biggest concern as a business owner and employer through the entire 2020 pandemic, one of the biggest challenges was the inconsistencies,” he said. “I would love to have a requirement for masking for guests. If there’s a mask requirement, then let’s make a mask requirement. Guests are terribly confused when they come to the community and they don’t know who’s got what — it’s very inconsistently applied, and you get very low cooperation.”
“That’s great to hear — we often hear the opposite,” Sabella replied.
Lisa LeMay, proprietor of Aspen T-shirt Company and spokesperson for the retail sector on the ACRA board, also lamented that her employees found themselves taking the brunt of tourists’ frustration regarding the mask mandate and how, if at all, it was enforced last year. Heading into the winter season, she anticipates another mandate — but won’t subject her staff to the same treatment they endured last year, she warned.
“We've actually already had a conversation because we all know that probably this winter, a mask requirement will be in place — we all see it coming. Our employees went through such abuse last winter that we will not be the police. If guests come in and their mask is hanging down to here,” she said, gesturing to her chin, “we will not be the ones to say, ‘You need to wear your mask.’ So many of our employees were left in tears after encounters last year, and this year will be even worse. We can’t expect our employees to take on that battle.”
But if there was a mandate, rather than the current recommendation to wear masks — which follows the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper pointed out — it would make things easier for employers and employees alike, she noted.
“We are happy to put up any signate, we’re happy to have our employees wear it all the time — 50% of my employees do right now,” LeMay said.
But even last year, when Pitkin County had issued a more conservative mask mandate than neighboring Eagle or Garfield counties, for instance, tourists still expressed confusion, many noted.
Aspen Mayor Torre — speaking for himself, before the city council regular meeting later in the evening Tuesday — emphasized that while the conversation is “invaluable” surrounding employers’ perspectives about masks heading into what is shaping up to be a record-setting September for tourism, it’s still a very new one.
“It’s been one week. Our spike has been happening in the last week. This is on the table, this is right now. I really appreciate what you’re saying — there’s been different takes on this from different businesses. So our community itself is somewhat divided on this, but the conversation is happening. What you're talking about right now is today’s conversation,” he said.