County meeting

In this screen shot from Tuesday’s work session of Pitkin County commissioners, Steve Child speaks to the issue of communicating more directly with a local construction company as other commissioners (top) listen to his comments. Three commissioners were physically present in the county meeting room while two fellow members, including Child, participated remotely.

Pitkin County commissioners spent considerable time Tuesday discussing concerns about communications between local government and residents on various matters related to the coronavirus situation.

The concerns ranged from the public’s need for information about the lack of local COVID-19 testing to Monday’s “stay at home” public health order that will bring a halt to local construction projects for more than two weeks starting April 1.

Since the global pandemic became an Aspen-area reality earlier this month, most information deemed publicly relevant has been filtered through the multi-jurisdictional Incident Management Team, which includes members from Pitkin County, the city of Aspen and other government entities. The team, mainly through designated spokespersons, disseminates information either directly to the public or through local media channels on a somewhat daily basis.

During a work session, commissioners tended to agree that they, as elected officials and representatives of the county citizenry, need to do more communicating on their own.

“I want to have a conversation on communications strategy, because what we’ve heard, loud and clear the last several days, is people are scared, they’re frightened, they’re hearing different things from different people, they’re trying to decipher fact from fiction, and I think the people are looking to the county to provide that information on a daily basis,” Commissioner George Newman said midway through a nearly two-hour open discussion on Tuesday afternoon .

“I think it’s critical for us to come up with a strategy,” Newman said, additionally suggesting that he was curious as to whether county and city officials were discussing communications matters. “We’ve got to come up with the ability to provide accurate, timely information to our citizens and to be able to sort of calm people down, let them know what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and answer some of those very frequently asked questions.”

County Manager Jon Peacock acknowledged that amid the unprecedented crisis, the public has become confused by conflicting information and misinformation that’s “difficult to sort out” in a rapidly changing environment.

Peacock said he agreed with Newman on the need for “voices from the board, from our other elected leaders, as we’re starting to get hopefully into a more predictable phase of dealing with this event.” However, he pointed out that a mere 10 days ago, local concern over coronavirus spread and the economic fallout was hardly at the level where it stands today.

He said guidance from state and federal government “has been lagging, and that’s been our focus.” Within such a fast-moving and complex environment, “it’s really easy to lose that clear chain of communications.”

But Peacock said he believes the public wants to hear from commissioners directly. To that end, Commissioner Greg Poschman suggested that commissioners, perhaps in concert with the Aspen City Council, could provide daily video web updates on how government is dealing with the situation.

Peacock noted that the county has launched a “dashboard” on its website that provides up-to-date public health information and other details related to COVID-19 and its local impacts. It can be accessed via pitkincounty.com/1297/COVID-19. He also encouraged the public to access online information being provided by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“All of those [sites] have vetted and credible information on them,” Peacock said. “We do have a lot of information going out daily, it’s just not connecting on all channels.”

Newman said that while the county’s website may contain information, it may need to be tweaked so that the home page has a more direct link to the kind of information the public wants. He also suggested that frequent contact with local media may be a key to overcoming communications obstacles.

He also said commissioners are challenged with “being up to speed.” He said he didn’t hear about Monday’s public health order and the new “stay at home” restrictions until Tuesday morning when constituents called him with questions.

Later in the discussion, commissioners Steve Child and Patti Clapper brought up the construction restrictions that are part of the county’s new health order. They expressed concerns that the building community — which typically ramps up its projects during the spring months — may have been blindsided by the mandate to cease all activity between April 1 and April 17.

The city of Aspen on Tuesday released a follow-up notice to the order on Tuesday that outlines the restrictions on residential and commercial construction activity. Until March 31, workers may continue “minimum basic operations … for the purpose of their workers safely securing and closing their construction sites.”  All site workers must follow the six-foot social-distancing separation guidelines, a news release says.

Infrastructure projects deemed as “essential” are exempted as long as they follow the separation guidelines. For emergency repairs “to ensure basic life safety” in structures during the construction pause, the city is asking contractors to contact Mike Metheny, chief building official, at (970) 319-5117.

Exemptions to the new rule include plumbers, electricians, exterminators, internet or broadband providers and other service providers who offer services that are necessary toward “maintaining the safety, sanitation and essential operation of residences, essential activities, and essential businesses” considered exempt from the public health order. Those with questions are asked to email cmphelp@cityofaspen.com or call (970) 920-5080.

Peacock said it might be unwise to go back and alter the public health order to amend the restrictions on construction activity, especially given all of the unknowns surrounding the spread of the coronavirus regionally and COVID-19’s potential long-term impacts on community health.

Andre is a reporter for Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at andre@aspendailynews.com.