County meeting

Nan Sundeen, Pitkin County director of human services, speaks Tuesday afternoon about the need for government financial assistance to workers affected by the coronavirus crisis as County Manager Jon Peacock listens.

In a special meeting Tuesday, Pitkin County commissioners officially ratified County Manager Jon Peacock’s previously declared state of emergency relating to the coronavirus pandemic — a move that will pave the way for the county to receive federal and state funds designed to assist local government with the ongoing public health and economic crises.

Commissioners also unanimously agreed to appropriate an extra $350,000 from the general fund balance toward the county’s previously budgeted emergency fund of $150,000 to help local workers who have been displaced from their jobs and their families. Peacock said the county also can make use of another $100,000 already through a federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, plus another $40,000 in a separate emergency assistance fund, which brings the current county amount for coronavirus-related assistance to $640,000.

But, he said following the meeting, that figure isn’t enough. What it represents is a “bridge” the county can rely on until more state and federal funds become available.

“We think this event is going to create a much greater need because of the impact to people’s jobs and paychecks,” Peacock said. “I think we’re going to find the potential needs of the community are going to absorb this money pretty quickly.”

Nan Sundeen, the county’s director of human services, also spoke to commissioners about how extra funds will be required to deal with the coronavirus crisis. A multifaceted approach is being developed to help those in need following Gov. Jared Polis’ ordered shutdown last weekend of ski areas across the state, including Aspen Skiing Co.’s four resorts in Pitkin County. 

While those mandated closures were designed to last one week, it is not known if the governor will extend the closures at the end of this week or whether the ski companies would even reopen if the temporary shutdown is lifted. Most Colorado ski areas tend to close in early to mid-April.

In addition to the affected workers at ski areas locally and elsewhere, Polis also ordered all restaurants and bars to cease their operations, save for food take-out and delivery services. He also shut down gyms, theaters and casinos. This, too, has stopped the flow of wages and tips to thousands of service-industry workers locally, regionally and across the state.

Locally, SkiCo is developing a plan to pay workers two weeks’ worth of wages and is looking into the possibility of temporary rental assistance at its workforce-housing properties. Jeff Hanle, SkiCo director of public relations, said Monday that specific details would be shared with the company’s employees directly, through managers, supervisors and other company avenues of communication, not through the news media.

Sundeen said while the county is allocating funds to help displaced workers, the Aspen Community Foundation is working to raise more money from private donors for its area nonprofit partners. Those nonprofits essentially have the same goal as the county: to assist with housing, food and health-care payments. The foundation won’t be providing direct support to workers, she clarified — it serves as a funding umbrella for myriad agencies across the valley.

“We really need that support,” Sundeen said. “We need the nonprofits to have COVID-19 response.”

And, she said, while Pitkin County is piecing together monies for emergency response, officials and Eagle and Garfield counties are doing the same. Sundeen and other Pitkin County officials participated in a conference call on Monday with representatives of nonprofits and other counties to get a handle on where everyone stands with their assistance systems.

Sundeen and Peacock both said that displaced workers needing economic assistance should start with an unemployment claim through the Colorado Department of Labor and Development. That process can begin by visiting the web page colorado.gov/pacific/cdle/file-claim. However, on Tuesday evening, the website was not accepting information as it was undergoing maintenance.

Not everyone will be eligible for state unemployment benefits, which is why Pitkin County, the Aspen Community Foundation and others are stepping up efforts to raise funds for the cause.

“We can help with rent, mortgage payments, utilities, various supplies and grocery store gift cards,” Sundeen said after Tuesday’s meeting. “That’s what we did during the [2018] Lake Christine Fire, but we’re stepping up on a much larger scale now.”

Many workers are undocumented, but that doesn’t mean they can’t apply for or receive help. School resource centers, such as the Family Resource Center in Aspen, can come to their aid, as can the nonprofit Catholic Charities, which has an office in Glenwood Springs.

“[Direct government assistance] is harder for people who are contract employees or those who have been working ‘under the radar,’” Sundeen said.

The county’s website, pitkincounty.com, contains information not only about the health aspects of the coronavirus, but also on economic services and relief programs to assist those “from Aspen to Parachute,” she said. The site was updated on Tuesday to add information — forms, phone numbers and web links — about what may be available to affected workers and the steps they can take to receive assistance.

Sundeen added that various food drives are already underway in the valley, and that Aspen Homeless Shelter winter-shelter clients are being housed at the county’s Health and Human Services Building near Aspen Valley Hospital because St. Mary Catholic Church, the usual overnight quarters from December through March for the homeless, has been closed.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury chaired Tuesday’s meeting as three other commissioners — Steve Child, George Newman and Greg Poschman — participated remotely because of social-distancing recommendations. Patti Clapper was physically present at the meeting.

Peacock told commissioners that in the near future he will likely bring back more updates relating to coronavirus economic assistance depending on how quickly the county’s existing funds are disbursed.

“The strength and resilience of a community is demonstrated during challenging times,” he said at the meeting’s start. “This is an unprecedented time. Now is our time as a community to pull together.”

The local hotline for those with questions concerning coronavirus health and economic issues is (970) 429-6186.

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