Bike shops in Aspen learned this week that while the state of Colorado’s stay at home public health order deems bicycle maintenance and sales as an essential business, Pitkin County’s guidelines do not.
Aspen police officers visited at least two bike shops on Thursday to inform them that they are not classified as an essential business by Pitkin County’s standing public health order and therefore must close. The shops had been operating according to social distancing guidelines, minimizing or eliminating contact between customers and employees and curtailing employee hours. At Ute City Cycles, customers would make an appointment for service over the phone and drop off and pick up bikes at the back door, paying over the phone. The Hub of Aspen would allow one customer into the store at a time to make purchases with a similar arrangement for service.
Bill Linn, assistant police chief in Aspen and a public information officer for the local COVID-19 incident management team, confirmed that the shops were visited by officers enforcing the county’s public health order.
“No one was trying to break the rules,” Linn said of the shops. “This was not a situation where someone was flaunting the order.”
Instead, there was confusion, Linn said, because the bike shops were operating under the assumption that state guidance deeming bicycle shops as essential to transportation applied to them. However, Pitkin County’s stay-at-home order does not exempt bike shops, like it does with automobile service shops.
“We have explicit direction from the county attorney that says bike shops are not deemed essential and therefore should close,” Linn said.
County Attorney John Ely, who clarified that his role is to interpret and apply the public health order, not craft its regulations, said that the state intentionally allows counties to set stricter guidelines with their own orders.
The point of the order, he noted, is to limit opportunities for the COVID-19 coronavirus to spread.
Asked if he thought that bike shops should receive a waiver similar to auto mechanics, Ely said that if too many exemptions are granted, the effect of the order could be diminished to the point where “you’ve accomplished nothing.” You have to draw the line somewhere, he said, adding that the community’s compliance with the guidelines has been “remarkable.”
The order may be amended by the county’s board of health, in consultation with the public health department. The board is expected to meet on Thursday to consider the order and, potentially, concerns that have been raised by the community, Ely said. While he does not expect the board will take public comment at its virtual meeting, anyone who wants to weigh in on the order is encouraged to send a written comment into his office or the public health department via email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Ute City Cycles owner P.J. Clotfelter said he is working with other local bike shop owners and the cycling community to advocate for reclassifying bike shops as an essential business. With bus service limited and many folks who are out of work and looking to save money on transportation costs, “bicycle transportation is necessary right now,” he said, so it’s important for riders to have services available to keep their wheels spinning. He is planning a social media push and a petition that he hopes will influence county decisions makers.
Tim Emling, owner of the Hub of Aspen, has been coordinating with Clotfelter and other bike shop owners to advocate for the shops being allowed to stay open. He was working on a set of guidelines Friday outlining a “new normal protocol” for all shops to follow on how to operate in a COVID-19 safe manner, in the hopes of speaking with a unified voice to public health officials.
Emling said his bike shop’s service business began picking up as soon as the ski areas closed one month early on March 15.
While Emling said he felt strongly that allowing folks to get out and ride bikes is in the public health interest — both for transportation and recreation — he was also realistic about the stakes of the COVID-19 response.
“We are not trying to take risks that should not be taken,” he said. “I don’t want to make this some sort of coup but I think it’s worth having a conversation about or revisiting what we need to do and how we safely do it.”
As high as the demand might be for two-wheeled transportation, “we need to address the matter at hand,” he said, recognizing that closing down now may be necessary to prevent more pain later.
Linn, the assistant policy chef and IMT spokesperson, said that officials charged with enforcing the order are acutely aware of the impacts it has on local workers.
“As we continue to say, this is not about putting people out of business or harming business,” Linn said “ … That’s not the goal. The goal is to squash down this virus and literally keep people alive.”