Downtowner

Aspen’s “Downtowner” is among the sort of ride-share programs that has come under public health officials’ scrutiny as a source of COVID-19 exposure. New guidelines are expected next week for the taxi, limo and shuttle sector.

 

Despite industry-specific COVID-19 safety guidelines ranging from education to construction to hospitality, there is another arena that Pitkin County Public Health officials have identified as an emerging place of exposure to the novel coronavirus: taxis and other ride-hailing options.

“We don’t have specific guidance for taxis, limos, shuttles and ride-shares,” said Jordana Sabella, planning, prevention and partnerships manager for the county’s public health department. “We can greatly improve and promote the carpooling guidance that’s available to folks.”

To that end, business liaison Bob Schultz has been reaching out to local taxi companies and hotels with shuttle services about concerns and would-be logistical challenges to inform staff when drafting upcoming guidelines.

“And organizations that use carpools,” Sabella continued. “So we can address that [feedback] before we finalize the guidance.”

Additionally, the public health staff has been looking to existing examples of guidelines for that sector as a baseline. They didn’t find much — stateside, that is — despite Garfield County also pinpointing ride-shares as mobile breeding grounds for infection.

“This week, we’ve spent time developing that guidance. Actually, Toronto, Canada has some of the best guidance we’ve seen,” Sabella said.

The hope is to roll out the new guidelines next week. It’ll be the 17th set of guidelines the department has developed in the last few months — and that’s in addition to the 12 iterations of public health orders and addendums since mid-March.

State statute during a pandemic

The most recent version of the Pitkin County public health order, which came into effect at the beginning of the month, most notably limits the number of informal gathering sizes to 10 people — down from 50.

That’s because of data indicating that about 9% of positive COVID-19 cases in the county can be traced back to such gatherings — in an epidemiological context in which roughly 40% of cases can’t be traced to a single point of exposure at all.

A week into the new order, Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper mentioned during a health board meeting Thursday that she’s already been the recipient of complaints from her constituents regarding the new limitation.

“One of the primary concerns was … the feeling the county was overstepping their bounds by trying to control something that was happening at the private sector level,” she said. “People are getting very upset, and I’m fielding those calls trying to get them to the right person to help them with those events.”

But thanks to a Colorado revised statute known as Public Health and Environment Health Care Article 25, the county is exactly within its rights to enforce set parameters for gathering sizes, even on private property.

“Under Title 25, the public health director, and separately the board of health, [has] authority when it’s reasonably necessary to protect public health,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock explained Thursday. “These types of restrictions have been recommended at the national level, the state level — and, in fact, implemented at the state level — as well as the local level.”

The 10-person cap does not necessarily mean that a larger backyard wedding reception or similar larger gathering couldn’t happen under the current restrictions, Sabella noted.

“We have limited informal events to a maximum of 10 people. Those events that are 11 to 50 people continue to be permitted, but they need to meet some qualifications,” she said. “They would require a dedicated, professional event coordinator — this is someone who already has a business safety plan on file and will file a safety plan for that event.”

And for business-hosted events, such as those at a restaurant or hotel ballroom, the 50-person rule still applies, as such businesses would have already submitted a safety plan with the county.

Brent Miller, on the health board, said Thursday that he, too, has heard some complaints similar to those relayed by Clapper — namely, that restrictions on private gatherings, like the question of mask mandates, are sometimes relayed as encroachments on individual rights.

“The complaints that I get, they’re much like the debate in the country,” he said, calling such contentions the “personal freedom” argument.

But, he continued, there’s a larger swath of people from whom he’s heard whose collective concern is that the health board has been too lenient in its decisions.

“I get a much bigger cross section of people that tell me, we’re not doing enough. The board needs to be proactive and much stronger in its decisions. We wake up every day behind this thing — at least 10 days, 14 days, whatever. In my view, doing anything is better than doing nothing,” he said, later adding that he thought “overreaction” was a good thing when it comes to battling the pandemic.

While a developing regional, tri-county strategy continues to be in the works among Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties regarding mitigation and communication, earlier groundwork laid by Pitkin County to hire significantly more full-time public health staff has already proven effective for contact tracing and enforcement.

To date, the consumer and employee protection team has investigated 32 complaints in the county in the week ending Wednesday, according to manager Bryan Daugherty.

“We’re trying to do that as fast as possible — generally 24 to 48 hours to investigate a complaint,” he told the health board. “We feel that’s very important so we can see issues in the community and correct them before they become problems.”

That said, not every complaint happens during regular business hours. To supplement those efforts, the Aspen Police Department has been invaluable, Daugherty continued.

“The city of Aspen police, they have been putting in a lot of work — especially with this new mask ordinance — and doing a lot of late-night checkups for bars and [those] sort of things that are kind of out of our time frames,” he said. “So we’re really blessed to be able to have them doing that for us, as well.”

Indeed, on early Saturday morning around 1 a.m., Aspen police had to shut down illegal operations at nightclub Bootsy Bellows, which was also a point of discussion during Thursday’s health board meeting.

“The question becomes one of the enforcement side, and we know that a respective business has been closed for 30 days,” said health board chair and Snowmass Mayor Markey Butler. “The question I got from another community member was, to what extent are there fines? To what extent is jail time — those types of things — being considered?”

Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann answered directly, citing the Colorado revised statute.

“Right now, that can include a fine up to $5,000 or jail time,” she said. “We’re talking with the attorney’s office tomorrow to discuss what our next steps [are] with this particular case.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.