Since the start of COVID-19, Pitkin County’s approach to violations of the public health order has been one of education over enforcement.
Ten months into the pandemic, that’s about to change.
“I don’t often use enforcement as a tool; it’s a stick and it’s a last resort,” Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said Wednesday during a roundtable discussion organized and hosted by Aspen Mastermind. “But I do think we are in desperate times, which require desperate measures.”
In the era of COVID, “desperate times” look like an increase in the virus’ transmission rate locally that launched Pitkin County to the highest incidence rate in the state (now No. 2, behind Crowley County, as of Thursday), which in turn motivated the health board on Jan. 11 to implement red-level restrictions for sectors like restaurants, which took effect Sunday.
This is among the reasons upper-valley law enforcement agencies — the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and the Aspen, Snowmass Village and Basalt Police stations — are shifting their collective strategy. In a statement from said agencies released Thursday, the need to reinforce “messages around COVID safety” are more important than ever in order for businesses and individual community members to be able to return to some semblance of normalcy.
“The meat of it, really, is that we will be taking a harder look at enforcement of flagrant and egregious violations of the public health order,” Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta said Thursday. “As an example: a large house party. Something like that.”
Burchetta continued: “We will not be driving around, patrolling, actively looking for violations of the public health order — looking in windows and looking to break up grandma’s 100th birthday party.”
Another reason the departments are turning to ramped-up enforcement is because most of their staff have received the COVID-19 vaccine, Aspen Police Assistant Chief Bill Linn said.
“We [had] significantly reduced the number of contacts we were doing because we just didn’t want to inadvertently introduce COVID to our staff,” Linn said. The vaccination “adds a level of reassurance” when answering calls and making direct contact with folks.
At a time when police agencies across the country are working to build trust, the statement from the departments noted that “the perception of heavy handedness and police overreach, intruding into the lives of community members, is also of significant concern.”
Linn and Burchetta stressed that neither agency wishes to engage with the public in such an overbearing capacity.
“This does not have to turn into a police action. And really, none of us want to turn this into [that],” Linn said Thursday. He said issuing tickets “is, and remains, a last resort.”
The statement added: “We will most likely take an approach similar to that of a noise complaint, where officers will try to find a reasonable approach to address the problem, with a ticket as one possibility.”
This doesn’t mean the departments will hesitate to issue citations when necessary. Perpetrators of the public health order would face a class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a presumptive penalty that includes a possible jail sentence, if convicted, of six to 18 months and a fine of between $500 and $5,000.
“This is not something that we’re taking lightly,” Burchetta said. “We prefer to be good neighbors and err on the side of education, but for those flagrant and very overt types of violations, there are significant penalties.”
The district attorney is also in line with this plan and will prosecute violations as it sees fit, the statement noted.
Both officers, when asked Thursday, hesitated to put a number on how many people constitutes an “egregious” gathering. They offered that a gathering size is one of many variables and that calls would be treated case by case.
Per the current restrictions in Pitkin County, gatherings of more than one household — not necessarily family — are prohibited and in violation of the public health order.
To file a complaint while or before an illicit gathering is happening, the public is encouraged to call dispatch at 970-920-5310. A general health violation complaint can be made at tinyurl.com/covidcomplaint. More information is available at covid19.pitkincounty.com.
“By making this very public, we’re trying to give people a heads up that we’re taking this seriously, and we really insist that they do as well,” Linn said. “But our goal is to protect the health of our community and get things back to normal as soon as we possibly can.”