In an effort to stem the spread of COVID-19 in Pitkin County, restaurants are only able to operate at 50 percent capacity and bars are not allowed to operate at all. However, since the May 27 reopening of sit-down dining service, the Aspen City Council has been made aware that many restaurants effectively turn into bars once dinner has ended and the drinks continue to flow.
Tonight, the council will consider a measure meant to tamp down on the de facto bar openings by mandating a midnight closing for all businesses within city limits. The ordinance was considered on first reading via a special meeting called by council Tuesday, and continues on second reading, including public comment, beginning at 6:30 p.m. this evening.
City Attorney Jim True drafted the emergency ordinance which states that, “No customer or patron of any business may remain on the premises after 12:00 o’clock midnight.” The ordinance also modifies the standing face covering requirements to ban businesses from letting customers enter without masks, and gives power to the city council to revoke businesses licenses for infractions to the public health order.
Councilmember Skippy Mesirow said the hasty timeline of the special meeting and emergency ordinance caught him off guard. He asked for clarification as to the purpose of the early closure requirements; as it stands restaurants are able to operate until 2 a.m.
“We are looking at numbers rising, we want to make sure we don’t have a second spike, but I didn’t understand the curfew,” Mesirow said.
Because the ordinance also adds the threat of a lost liquor license, and clarifies the public health requirements made of individuals and businesses, he questioned the need for the early closure as long as all establishments are complying.
“I don’t understand what the curfew achieves other than punishing people who aren’t breaking the rules,” Mesirow said.
Councilmember Rachel Richards responded that spikes recorded in other communities throughout the country have been traced back to crowded bar scenes, and that punishing bars that violate the public health orders would be like closing the gate after the horse has left the barn if an outbreak is already underway.
“Maybe this won’t be needed for more than a month, but watching the surge across the country… and many of our visitors and many of the folks coming here are from those hot spots, I’m willing to go further and take whatever heat comes with it,” Richards said.
Currently the ordinance is written to include all businesses. Mesirow asked how that would affect something like child care if a nanny was hired to work past midnight. Mayor Torre had a similar question about how the mandate would impact Local’s Corner, the gas station in town. He said the priority for this emergency ordinance would be to cut down the late night gathering of members of the public in a bar scene, which would be more likely to fall short on other city initiatives such as mask wearing and maintaining a distance of 6 feet between unrelated parties.
“I’d like to see these establishments be able to operate safely till 2 o’clock but we are not seeing that. We are seeing the risk assessment for bars is very high,” Torre said. “This is not an easy decision that we are making. We are not against businesses operating to those hours in normal times but these are not normal times.”
He encouraged the council to reach out to the restaurant community before tonight’s 6:30 p.m. meeting that will allow public comment on the ordinance.
From what he has heard, he said the second section of the ordinance will empower restaurants to do the right thing when a customer arrives who does not want to wear a mask.
“Any business open to the public that permits an individual to enter or remain in the business without a required face covering is subject to the suspension or revocation of its business or liquor license,” it reads.
Mesirow agreed that with the threat of a lost license, businesses can be adamant when met with a surly customer, and have the weight of the law backing their request for compliance.
“It allows those complying to have the backing of the city in their actions, and for those not complying it creates accountability,” he said.
Torre prepared the council for a public comment period tonight, saying the decision to close restaurants down early will not be popular with everyone.
“I feel like there are some businesses that are going to be caught in the cross of this. There are businesses that are able to safely operate under our current closure time,” he said. “Know that when we make this decision tomorrow, we are making it with all information in front of us and making the best decision for all of the concerns in our community.”