While the Aspen City Council supports funding new positions to educate visitors and residents about public health orders that are in place to prevent a spike of COVID-19 cases, it has stopped short of creating an enforcement team that would report violations.
In Tuesday’s continuation of a special meeting that started Monday, the council approved up to three “street team” members, in partnership with the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, that would act as ambassadors in the downtown commercial core. Along with answering questions about local laws, they also will hand out masks and hand sanitizer in an attempt to quell the spread of the virus.
The council met in closed session Monday night to discuss the proposal with City Attorney Jim True. The executive session ended at 8:30 p.m. and the special meeting was restarted on Tuesday afternoon so the public could observe the council’s final discussions regarding public health order enforcement positions.
True told council the ambassador street team would have a positive, not a punitive role, “promoting and describing and explaining” Aspen’s rules — especially as tourism increases.
The city and the chamber already have a contract to staff visitor information booths in the airport, at the visitor center in the old powerhouse and at the kiosk on the Cooper Avenue pedestrian mall. The three new positions would be funded through that standing arrangement.
A separate position, dubbed “observationalists,” was discussed. That role would be housed under the city’s environmental health department and would document violations of public health orders, reporting them to Pitkin County officials who are ultimately responsible for enforcement. The public health order is a county mandate.
A council majority did not have an appetite for the enforcement positions and elected instead to only focus on the ambassador program.
“I very much support education over enforcement,” said Councilmember Ann Mullins.
She suggested the ambassadors wear a uniform that clearly identifies their role and encourages the public to come to them with questions.
Councilmember Skippy Mesirow agreed, saying the benefit would be greater if the team felt approachable, rather than out to get businesses and residents who are out of compliance.
“The goal here is ambassador not hall monitor,” Mesirow said. “We don't want this to feel like the lights go on and the roaches scatter throughout the room.”
However, Councilmember Ward Hauenstein pushed for the street team to have a stronger regulatory role.
The ultimate goal is to keep Aspen open,” Hauenstein said. “But in the event of repeated violations, I want these people to be able to act as information gatherers and disseminators to the county for enforcement.”
He also asked that the ambassadors be trained in de-escalation and avoiding conflict in the case of people violating the health order deliberately.
“I just think this could be a volatile position. I think there are a certain number of people in this country that visit this town in this summer that might look at facemasks as a political statement and not wearing facemasks as their God-given right,” he said.
Mayor Torre also acknowledged the difficulties that will come with the role, even without an enforcement directive as part of the job description.
“This is not going to be the easiest walk about town. Speaking to people about the guidelines and such is going to be a very delicate matter,” Torre said.
He sided with Mullins and Mesirow in keeping the street team out of the enforcement game, noting the city is helping to support the county in its COVID-19 response, including hiring new consumer protection staff members who will be monitoring businesses for compliance.
The city is still finalizing the ambassador job description with the intention of hiring three positions to be in place seven days a week, from 10 a.m to 8 p.m., through September.