Summit County law enforcement emphasize education over punishment for health order violators |

Summit County law enforcement emphasize education over punishment for health order violators

Community members gathered at Carter Park in Breckenridge on March 15 to go sledding. The town later closed the park to prevent people from gathering in large groups.
Taylor Sienkiewicz /

DILLON — Law enforcement agencies around the county are asking residents to do their part to help stop the spread of the new coronavirus, urging everyone to follow the guidance of the county’s public health order.  

The order now includes the prohibition of gatherings of more than 10 individuals, along with widespread closures to businesses, lodging and other services. Violators can face some hefty penalties, too, including a fine of up to $5,000 and up to 18 months in jail. But officials say the threat of penalty shouldn’t have to be the deciding factor for would-be violators.

“We’re getting calls now about people violating the public health order,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “You’ve got people calling about groups of people, short-term rentals, neighbors calling on neighbors. But I don’t believe that we can enforce our way out of this. This is about character and personal integrity — your moral compass telling you to stay home and obey the order. The threat of a ticket or getting sent to jail shouldn’t be what influences you.”

FitzSimons said the county’s law enforcement agencies don’t have the capacity to actively seek out violations, but they will be following up on each complaint. So far, FitzSimons said the most common calls have been about short-term rentals still operating, and gatherings at backcountry ski areas like Loveland Pass, where skiers and snowboarders arrived in droves during the weekend, many parked illegally on the highway.

“Loveland Pass this weekend was a big drain on resources,” FitzSimons said. “But we’re seeing this effect at all our trailheads where people go backcountry skiing. They just have the good intensions of trying to get out and get some fresh air, but even if you don’t get really sick, you can infect other people — vulnerable populations, your family and friends.”

FitzSimons said that while violators could face civil and criminal punishments, his office is more interested in trying to educate offenders and bring them into compliance rather than slapping them with a fine or jail time.

While going backcountry skiing is OK, officials are asking participants to avoid congregating in parking lots or at trailheads. FitzSimons noted that any large groups gathering would be dispersed by law enforcement along with anyone parking illegally.

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Despite a number of complaints, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t written any citations so far. Other law enforcement leaders around the county said their philosophies are similar, erring on the side of education over penalization.

“We’ve taken that stance from the very beginning of this,” Frisco Police Department Chief Tom Wickman said. “You think about all the anxiety people have right now, we don’t want to create any more. … We’re cautioning folks and talking with people to make sure they’re following the rules. But everything has been fine in Frisco.”

“We’ve had a couple calls come in from the county, but we’re trying to push things back toward public health to help educate those people,” Silverthorne Police Department Chief John Minor said. “All the police chiefs and the sheriff talk every day, and we’re trying to coordinate our responses so there’s some consistency. But the first step is always education.”

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