Local officials disagree over COVID-19 public health order enforcement
DA declines to comment on potential prosecution related to ’superspreader’ Halloween event
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Following a “superspreader” Halloween party that put hundreds of high school students in quarantine and caused Routt County’s COVID-19 cases to skyrocket, Steamboat Springs City Council members expressed different opinions on how to stop the spread of the coronavirus during a work session Tuesday.
While all council members agreed the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the community is a crisis, some members felt stricter enforcement was necessary, rather than the educational approach the city and county have taken so far.
“When is encouragement not enough?” council member Sonja Macys asked the council.
Macys referenced the young adult charged in March with a felony for a social media post declaring COVID-19 a hoax and asked why the parents of the high school student who threw the Halloween party were not charged with criminal penalties.
“We slapped a guy with a felony in March for saying this was not a thing,” she said, “and now that we have actual criminal activity violating public health orders, we’re not doing anything about it.”
Prior to the meeting Tuesday, Macys sent an email to Steamboat Springs Police Chief Cory Christensen, fellow council member Lisel Petis, City Attorney Dan Foote and City Manager Gary Suiter asking for stricter enforcement of the public health orders, particularly for those who held and attended the Halloween party.
Matt Karzen, district attorney for Colorado’s 14th District, which includes Routt, Moffat and Grand counties, declined to comment Thursday on whether he planned to charge those involved.
Christensen said his department would have taken stronger enforcement actions against those at the party if the department knew about it before or as it was happening, which they did not.
“The first indication that the police department even had about this super-spreader event was reading about it in the newspaper,” he said. “We make decisions about enforcement when we get the call.”
As for contact tracing partygoers and citing them accordingly, Christensen said he worries that would interfere with the contact-tracing process.
“I’m not going to go back and take contact tracing information and then try to cite someone with that because that will discourage people from talking about contact tracing,” he said.
Community members who addressed council during public comment agreed with Macys and felt education simply was not enough.
“The time for gentle communication and persuasion has long passed,” said William Jorgenson, a Steamboat resident. “I don’t know what the answer is, but it’s not doing what we’ve been doing for the last month.”
As far as enforcing public health orders going forward, law enforcement members in Routt County are taking different approaches.
“I’ve told officers to use their discretion, but I want them to do a quality investigation, and I expect tickets where tickets are deserved,” Christensen said. “We know what works, and the bottom line is if you don’t want a ticket, don’t gather with more than 10 from two households.”
Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins expressed a differing view.
“Regarding the masks, I wish I knew if they worked or not,” he said. “There’s a lot of people who believe that they do work and a lot of people who believe that they don’t.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have both categorically said masks slow the spread of the virus.
Wiggins said mask wearing has become controversial, and he hears from county residents who believe state-mandated mask wearing is an infringement of their freedoms, which he said he understands.
“What do you tell these people that are so passionate about their feelings that the government is overstepping their boundaries,” he said. “I’ve researched this stuff quite a bit, and if you look at people who claim to be experts in the field, you have experts out there that have opposing views on these masks.”
While Macys called for criminal penalties for those violating public health orders in “egregious cases,” other council members felt such measures would not deter people from breaking rules.
“Where I’d like to see the city play a bigger part is how can we get better messaging out there,” Petis said. “There is a sect of our community that doesn’t care about containment and doesn’t think it affects them.”
Rather than soft messaging that reminds people why masks and social distancing are important, Petis suggested stronger messages telling people their actions could cause another shutdown in the county, forcing Steamboat Resort to close and costing businesses money they need to stay afloat.
“We should care about our favorite restaurants shutting down, our favorite retail stores going away, our school sports going away,” she said. “We are staring a shutdown in the face.”
Council member Michael Buccino agreed with Petis and said he hopes those who attended the party feel guilty, and he said the sense of embarrassment from causing a spike in community COVID-19 cases should deter people from such risky behavior.
“I hope the entitled few will feel the guilt over the pain that they’ve caused,” he said. “Let your guilt encourage you to follow the rules.”
Buccino said he believed some members of the community see Steamboat as “invincible” due to its slow and small spread of cases before the past week.
“We are, at any given point, as vulnerable as any other community,” he said.
To reach Alison Berg, call 970-871-4229 or email aberg@SteamboatPilot.com.
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