Aspen City Council approved a public health order Monday requiring that face masks be worn inside businesses and in outdoor situations in which six feet of social distance cannot be achieved.
Masks must cover a person’s nose and mouth and be able to stay in place on their own. The requirement does not apply to private offices. Children under two and those for whom wearing a face covering would present a health hazard are exempt.
Councilmember Rachel Richards works at Aspen’s City Market and said the public is not taking it upon themselves to wear face coverings while they shop.
“I see far too many people not wearing masks in the grocery stores,” Richards said. “It starts to feel silly that you are doing it but half of your customers aren't.”
The measure takes effect April 29 and sunsets on May 27, but can be extended at the council’s May 26 meeting. Councilmember Ward Hauenstein called wearing masks the new normal and pushed for the measure to stand indefinitely. Mayor Torre disagreed.
“I prefer to send a message that we do see this as not necessary moving forward indefinitely,” Torre said.
Councilmember Skippy Mesirow also pushed back on the narrative that masks are the new normal. He said he has not seen convincing evidence that masks are necessary in the fight against COVID-19.
“Covering faces all across town, it’s going to feel eerie, it's going to feel creepy, and it's going to affect the way people interact,” Mesirow said.
He agreed that for the time being it was a step the council could take to protect public safety, but asked for more updates from staff as to the effectiveness of the measure when it is reconsidered next month.
“To suggest that this is the new normal, I’m just not there unless the science is really there,” he said.
Early in the identification of the novel coronavirus in the United States, the CDC and Surgeon General Jerome Adams both advised against wearing masks.
Adams tweeted Feb. 29, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
The masks that the public in Aspen are encouraged to wear are not required to be the N95 masks, which are needed by health care providers. The city considers cloth masks and Buff-style neck pieces as acceptable barriers.
A 2015 study found that cloth masks’ moisture retention and poor filtration can actually increase the risk of infection.
The author of the study, Professor Raina MacIntyre, the head of the Biosecurity Research Program at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, said that even so, when cloth masks are used on a mass scale in a community setting there can be benefits.
“In a city with high disease incidence universal face mask use in the community may help flatten the curve. This is because COVID-19 can be transmitted from people without symptoms, or in the two days before they develop symptoms, so if mask use is high in the community, it may prevent onward transmission from infected people and also protect well people. Modeling studies show that even 20 percent effectiveness can flatten the curve if enough people wear them,” MacIntyre said.
Mesirow said the implementation of the mask mandate is a step that will help open the local economy, but he is still waiting for better research to come about in regards to cloth masks.
“The reason we are doing this is to provide an added layer of protection and safety above and beyond what others are doing. Which can help with public health immediately but also provide additional opportunity for us to begin to safely reopen our economy, something that people want. And all of that needs to be based on the best public health information,” Mesirow said. “The health data on the effectiveness of this, it's present but not super sound.”
As the disease has spread across the country, the CDC has updated its recommendations to say that masks could be a helpful tool along with social distancing and other public health measures to curb the spread. But masks worn improperly or causing a false sense of security could result in an increase in infection.
“Individuals should be careful not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash hands immediately after removing,” states the CDC recommendations on face masks.
Though the new ordinance comes with a sliding scale of fees for each infraction, ranging from a $50 fine to a year in jail, the council stressed that they want enforcement to focus on education, not punishment.
“The goal is to get compliance, it’s not to penalize people. But we have to recognize that these things are difficult to enforce,” said city attorney Jim True.
Councilmember Ann Mullins asked that the city work to provide masks at essential businesses to help the public comply if they are entering a building without a face covering.
“I do think if we enact this we have to make a big push to make those masks available. We are trying to direct people in the right direction,” Mullins said.
The city has already distributed masks made by volunteers to grocery stores, liquor stores, the post office and hardware stores. Mullins said even though the Miner’s Building was a recipient of the free masks from the city, they had run out of them by 11 a.m. on the first day.
Police Chief Richard Pryor weighed in on the practicality of enforcement. He said asking his staff to engage with someone who was refusing to wear a mask is inherently putting them in harm's way. As it is, Aspen police are short of where they need to be in terms of protective masks for themselves.
“Our supply of PPP is somewhat limited. We have fewer than 200 masks,” Pryor said.
The police force has been handing out Buffs to the public, and will have another 2,000 in stock within the next 10 days that they can hand out when enforcing the new measure.
“We will have good success when we can get the masks to get to people,” Pryor said.