City of Aspen consumer health protection specialists Mike Sear, left, and Emmy Garrigus, walk through downtown Aspen and point out the new mask zone signs hanging from street poles on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Of the 180 complaints that have been fielded by city and county officials related to potential violations of COVID-19 public health orders, just over half are about people not wearing masks.

That’s according to data presented Tuesday by Natalie Tsevdos, the city of Aspen’s senior environmental health specialist, to Aspen City Council.

She gave an update on the efforts of the city’s health protection team, which includes two full-time staffers, as well as police officers and Mitch Osur, the director of downtown services.

They focus on outreach and education for Aspen businesses to understand local public health orders, but they also observe restaurants and retail stores to make sure they are following the rules.

They also field complaints lodged through the county’s online form and offer any information if necessary.

Based on those complaints, nearly 40% of them were about alleged violation at restaurants, whether it be mask wearing, exceeding capacity, group sizes or proper social distancing.

Tsevdos said those trends are similar to what she reported to council in October from summer and fall activity.

“We collect this data from complaints that we get and we use it to inform where we need to spend our time and where more education is needed,” she said. “Even though we are a small but mighty team, we still can’t be everywhere at once so this kind of completes the picture of what’s going on when we’re not around.”

Consumer health protection specialists Mike Sear and Emmy Garrigus, along with other city officials, have spent 60% of their time visiting businesses since last summer. Retail stores follow with 11% of visits and almost 9% at places of recreation.

Tsevdos said public health officials are seeing an improvement in compliance with businesses following the city’s COVID-19 operating plans and mask wearing.

Council member Skippy Mesirow said he’s seen worse behavior in non-compliance of public health orders in the past month.

Tsevdos said the community has fallen behind in compliance with social distancing perhaps because the rules keep changing and it was difficult for restaurants to operate at 25% capacity, which ended with an all-out ban on indoor dining that began Sunday.

Many in the community argue that closing indoor dining pushes people to gather in private residences, which is not allowed under the current local public health orders.

Mesirow suggested high penalty fines be levied on those who have house parties, particularly to serve as a deterrent during spring break when COVID-19 cases could see an increase.

“I’ve talked to people about, you know, if there was a $5,000 fine for people throwing but also attending say dinner parties that were beyond the scope of what is allowed would that be a deterrent for my friend group and it was like, ‘hell yeah that’s what I make in two months’ … that is kind of a rounding error for them, frankly,” Mesirow said. “I just want to kind of throw that out, that we may want to consider a more significant deterrent in a month or so from now.”

Councilman Ward Hauenstein agreed that compliance and enforcement of the public health order needs to be pursued, but now, not months out.

“People are getting sick, and the new strains are even more easily transmitted and to put this off a month or two, I don’t think they’ll do anything about it,” he said. “I think we need to get serious about it now so we can get our numbers down, get our businesses open again, people back to work that are no longer at work.”

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