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Mask mandates dropped on Roaring Fork Valley buses

Passengers on buses in the Roaring Fork Valley no longer need to wear a mask, agencies decided Tuesday.

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority, Ride Glenwood and Snowmass Village transportation department stopped enforcing the mask mandate for employees and passengers this week.

“Since the start of the pandemic RFTA’s goal has been to maintain essential transportation options while ensuring the safety of our customers, our employees, and our communities,” RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said in a prepared statement. “We are thankful for our staff members and loyal RFTA riders who have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 as they continued to make a difference in our community as essential workers taking essential trips using RFTA.”

Ride Glenwood buses no longer require masks for riders or drivers in alignment with federal Transportation Security Administration and RFTA policy, a Glenwood official said Tuesday.

“Per CDC guidance, the City of Glenwood Springs continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings at this time,” Glenwood Springs public information officer Bryana Starbuck said in an email. “As a recipient of federal funding for our Ride Glenwood bus system, masking policy has always followed federal policy.”

Also, masks are no longer required on Snowmass Village Shuttle buses, and vehicles will be boarding to full capacity (including standing passengers) as of Tuesday, according to Snowmass Village Transportation Director David Peckler.

The abrupt reversal in mask requirements for public transportation came after a federal court in Florida ruled Monday that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention failed to justify its decision and that the rulemaking procedures were flawed.

Federal agencies that oversee mass transit said after the ruling they would no longer enforce mask requirements on airplanes, trains, buses and shuttles. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport officials announced Tuesday they will no longer enforce facial coverings/masks in the terminal, effective immediately.

RFTA — the regional public bus operator — had required masks for the past two years.

“RFTA strongly encourages anyone who is not fully vaccinated, feeling ill, or who is immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable to use caution and consider facial coverings for their personal safety,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday morning. “RFTA recommends wearing upgraded masks such as N95s, KN95s, KF94s, etc., since they provide a higher level of protection. RFTA plans to continue making blue surgical masks available for the immediate future for boarding passengers.”

The agency said it would continue to work with local and state public health departments to ensure safety measures are followed, as needed.

RFTA will continue certain COVID-19 precautions such as using roof vents or windows to increase ventilation on buses, supplying hand sanitizer on all buses and “fogging” buses regularly to disinfect them. Barriers that separate drivers from passengers will remain in place.

Helping Roaring Fork Valley kids recover from two years of COVID

Amanda Petersen, program director for FocusedKids, helps preschool students understand how their brains work.
FocusedKids/courtesy photo

Remote learning, isolation, masks and rattled nerves have threatened to derail the academic performance of students in the Roaring Fork Valley over the past two years.

Two midvalley-based nonprofit organizations aim to help students and teachers reset and get back on track.

FocusedKids works in person with 500 elementary school students in 50 classrooms on a weekly basis with the goal of empowering kids to take control of their brains and improve their learning. Staffers with FocusedKids have witnessed the toll of the pandemic firsthand.

“Everybody is worn out,” said Kathy Hegberg, founder and executive director of FocusedKids. “There is nobody to turn to to talk to because everybody is worn out. Kids especially feel that way.”

While there is only limited research available so far on the setbacks the pandemic caused in academic achievement, it is clear from anecdotal information that the past two years have been rough.

“We have a (member) on our team that is a learning specialist for preschool,” Hegberg said. “She cannot believe what she’s seen. They’re calling it virtual autism. Kids are coming in that were born at the beginning of the pandemic and basically were cared for by a device so their parents could work at home or whatever was necessary. Their whole development has slowed.”

Kids are entering preschool and even kindergarten with undeveloped speaking skills, Hegberg said.

The learning obstacles extend throughout elementary school, according to Amanda Petersen, program director for FocusedKids. Veteran kindergarten and first-grade teachers have reported to her that they are struggling because they have so many students who don’t have the interest or skills to learn compared to pre-pandemic years.

Petersen said FocusedKids has expanded into fifth grade this year, and she has personally led sessions where she discusses with students what is going on in their brain. In one recent exercise, students were urged to list their worries on a small piece of paper that would be attached to a “worry rock.”

“It was really hard for them,” Petersen said. “They first of all didn’t want to write down all their worries because that would make them face their worries. One kid said, ‘I feel like all of my worries are staring me back in the face.’”

Others have commented to her that all their worries could not fit on the paper provided.

“With that many worries going on in your brain, how do you learn?” Hegberg asked.

The exercise is an opportunity to get at FocusedKids’ core mission — helping children understand their brain and putting it to good use in education and life. Petersen said kids learn why they cannot focus and why they are having trouble learning. In this particular exercise, they were given the option of tearing up their worry sheets and throwing them away as a sort of cleanse.

“Reaching the adults is the only way, I think, that kids are going to feel there is a safe place in the world again.” Kathy Hegberg, FocusedKids

The broader effort to channel students’ brainpower continues. FocusedKids provides a monthly professional development series for teachers. The series is a conduit to get to teachers information that otherwise would be hard to find. Teachers can discuss issues with one another and take information back to their classrooms.

A special virtual presentation sponsored by FocusedKids will complement that monthly series. On April 4, clinical psychologist Christine Runyan will explain the physiological effects of two years of the pandemic and social isolation.

Runyan is a professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Hegberg heard her speak in a podcast and sought her help in speaking to FocusedKids’ audience of teachers, parents and interested community members.

“Her whole talk was about normalizing what we’re all feeling,” Hegberg said. “Basically what she said was our bodies are beautifully built to manage stress and recover from stress, but they are not built to be under stress for two years in a row without relief.”

The local presentation will be online from 4:30-5:30 p.m. April 4. There is no cost, but participants must register at focusedkids.org/classes-workshops.

“Kids missed two years of social development, two years of academic development,” Hegberg said. “How do we get the adults in their lives back on track so they have someone to rely on, with the tools they need to recover?

“Kids mirror back whatever behavior they are being surrounded by,” she continued. “Reaching the adults is the only way, I think, that kids are going to feel there is a safe place in the world again.”

Meanwhile, another midvalley-based nonprofit is cranking up efforts to do what it does best. Summit54 has teamed with the Roaring Fork School District for 10 years to offer Summer Advantage, a free academic and life enrichment program for all elementary school-aged children in the Re-1 school district.

“The program is more important than ever, because there were learning losses when kids weren’t in school,” Summit54 founder and executive director Terri Caine said.

She credits the Roaring Fork School District for getting kids back in classrooms quicker than many schools. Nevertheless, the various distractions caused by the pandemic took their toll on learning.

Between 525 and 550 students typically sign up for Summer Advantage. The program is provided at the Basalt, Glenwood and Crystal River elementary schools. The school district provides transportation to the sites, and kids receive breakfast and lunch.

The Summer Advantage program includes a session after breakfast with FocusedKids that features brain exercises to reduce stress and prepares students to learn before they dive into two hours of literacy, one of math and other endeavors.

There are more than 70 educators and an educator-to-student ratio of no more than 1:11.

Caine said she is alerting returning families that the registration date is earlier this year on May 13. Student registration is available online at www.Summeradvantage.org in both Spanish and English. Registration is also available via phone: 1-866-924-7226 (*9 for Spanish).

“Over our 10-year history, participants gain an average of 2.5 months in reading and math skills during the five-week Summer Advantage program while having a blast,” the program materials said.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Lifted mask mandate won’t excuse Aspen hospital, airport, buses

Although the indoor mask mandate will end on Feb. 22, some businesses will continue enforcing the mandate. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Tuesday can’t come soon enough for those over and done with Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate, but a few places will still require people to wear face-coverings for admission.

Among them are Aspen’s airport and hospital and the local public buses, all of which will continue to acknowledge state and federal guidelines regarding mask-wearing.

“Although the mask mandate may be lifted for Pitkin County, for the hospital itself, which still has to follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines and the state guidelines, that mask mandate will not be lifted,” said Elaine Gerson, AVH’s chief operating officer, at the hospital’s monthly board meeting held Monday. “Masks will continue to be required if you are coming to the hospital for any services whatsoever.”

Varying mask mandates and guidelines for health care providers and facilities have come from both state and federal agencies, and those rules supersede orders at the local level.

In its Feb. 2 interim COVID-19 guidelines for health care personnel, the CDC said that “source control and physical distancing (when physical distancing is feasible and will not interfere with provision of care) are recommended for everyone in a health care setting.“

Source control is a reference to respirators, face masks and cloth masks.

The Colorado Board of Health’s rule requiring 100% vaccination rates for licensed health care facilities by Oct. 31, which has been in effect since Aug. 30, also remains in force.

As well, AVH will continue to adhere to the vaccination mandate by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which is the federal agency that establishes health and safety regulations for health care providers and suppliers that are Medicare- and Medicaid-certified.

“We are governed by federal rules and regulations because we accept Medicare as a payer source,” Gerson said.

In November, CMS posted its IFC, which stands for Interim Final Rule with Comment Period, regarding vaccinations for health care settings.

“We believe that the COVID-19 vaccine requirements in this IFC will result in nearly all health care workers being vaccinated, thereby benefiting all individuals in health care settings,” said the IFC. “This will greatly contribute to a reduction in the spread of and resulting morbidity and mortality from the disease, positive steps towards health equity, and an improvement in the numbers of health care staff who are healthy and able to perform their professional responsibilities.”

Both the CMS’s mandate as well as one from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s mandate, which had required vaccination and COVID-19 tests for employers with at least 100 workers, met legal challenges that the U.S. Supreme Court addressed in January. The high court upheld the CMS mandate through a 5-4 decision, but ruled 6-3 that OSHA exceeded its authority and blocked its vaccination and testing requirements.

AVH also will continue to conduct COVID-19 screenings (temperature check and COVID symptom questions) for people who enter the facility.

“We don’t expect the screening guidelines will end anytime soon,” Gerson said.

People at least 2 years of age still are required by federal law to wear masks on public transportation — including planes, Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, trains and other modes to get around. Transportation hubs also require masks under orders adopted by the Transportation Security Administration.

“Face coverings are mandatory in the Aspen Airport per TSA Executive Order,” according to the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport’s website.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate could be history by Presidents Day Weekend

on Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2022. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County Public Health staff will recommend that members of the Board of Health drop all local COVID-19-related restrictions including the indoor mask mandate when they meet Thursday.

That was the word Tuesday from Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, who told county commissioners that the end of local COVID-19 requirements could come as soon as Feb. 18, the beginning of Presidents Day Weekend.

“We will actually have a pretty significant policy recommendation coming forward … to sunset the existing public health order,” Peacock said. “Sunset means a lot of the requirements in the public health order … will revert from requirements back to recommendations.”

Eliminating the indoor mask requirement for children in school and in child care facilities will be part of the recommendation. Public health officials have been coordinating the recommendation with local schools officials, who have said they need a bit of time to adjust their operations before the unmasking, Peacock said.

Aspen Superintendent David Baugh will speak at Thursday’s Board of Health meeting, Peacock said.

The decision to recommend dropping all Pitkin County COVID-19-related requirements comes after conversations between local public health officials and their counterparts with the state public health department. High local levels of immunity and vaccination, the declining though still high incidence rate and the return of Aspen Valley Hospital to mostly comfortable operating status played parts in the recommendation, Peacock said.

Public Health Director Jordana Sabella also cited state public health officials’ recent estimation that 80% of Colorado’s population is likely immune to the omicron variant at this point and newly achieved same day turnaround for local COVID-19 testing results at community testing centers as further reasons to eliminate restrictions as other reasons.

“There’s a lot of immunity in the community,” she said.

Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate for schools and child care facilities was put in place by the Board of Health in August, while the general communitywide mandate began about a month later in September. The metrics for those restrictions and others were set during the delta variant wave.

“Things have changed,” Sabella said. “We want to follow the science and the data.”

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who also serves as chairman of the Board of Health, said part of the reasoning behind the recommendation is that other surrounding communities and counties have eliminated restrictions.

Besides the indoor mask mandates, the other restrictions that will come to an end if Board of Health members vote to end the restrictions include mandatory safety plans for events with more than 50 people and dissemination of the traveler responsibility code by lodging facilities to prospective visitors, she said.

Isolation and quarantine measures for those who test positive, however, will not change, Sabella said. Public health will use the same means to try and control transmission, she said.

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who has children not yet old enough to be vaccinated, said she thought the indoor mask mandate would be eliminated further down the road. She said a parent group she hears from would prefer to keep masks for kids in schools.

Commissioner Francie Jacober, on the other hand, said she’s spoken to visitors who scoff at the mask mandate from a community with a high incidence rate.

“People are concerned the mask mandate hasn’t done anything to control (transmission),” she said.

Pitkin County’s COVID-19 incidence rate stood at 452 per 100,000 people for the seven-day period ending Monday, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboard. The county logged 78 new cases of the virus among county residents in the week before.

The Board of Health will meet virtually at 1 p.m. Thursday. Public comment is set to be taken around 1:55 p.m., Poschman said Tuesday. Go to PitkinCounty.com and click on “meeting agendas” for information on how to tune in to Thursday’s meeting.

 

Eagle County formally ends legal action against Basalt school over mask mandate

Eagle County government filed a motion Monday to dismiss its legal action against Cornerstone Christian School over a mask mandate and other health issues.

The county in December filed a complaint and request for a preliminary injunction to require students and staff at the school to wear masks during hours of operation. However, the county commissioners voted as the county Board of Health on Jan. 14 to let the mask mandate expire on Jan. 17 for high schools and Jan. 21 for younger grades.

“Accordingly, given that the mask-mandate at the center of this case has now been lifted by Plaintiffs, and because Defendant has agreed to comply with state reporting and licensing requirements in the future, the issues set forth in Plaintiff’s complaint have become moot,” the county’s new motion said.

Cornerstone Christian School is located in the Roaring Fork Valley between Basalt and El Jebel. Pastor Jim Tarr, executive director of the school, told county officials on multiple occasions the school’s position is that the decision on masks should be up to parents. The county disagreed and said a mask mandate required in the public health order required compliance by all public and private schools.

The initial complaint also alleged that Cornerstone was violating Colorado law by not reporting COVID-19 test results at the school to the county. The school has agreed to share test results.

Eagle County Bryan Treu issued a statement Monday regarding the notice of dismissal.

“This dismissal was not based on any arguments or defenses raised by Cornerstone,” he said. “Rather, it was based on the school mask mandate being lifted by our public health director, Cornerstone’s asserted commitments to adhere to state requirements for COVID-19 case reporting, and inspections at the child care center. As a result, we know feel this matter is moot. We are hopeful that continued compliance efforts and disease trends make further action on our part unnecessary, but we remain ready to bring necessary enforcement actions in the future to keep our community safe.”

scondon@aspentimes.com

Hockey prompts Pitkin County’s largest COVID-19 outbreak since pandemic began

Aspen rec hockey league at the Aspen Ice Garden in 2019.
David Krause/The Aspen Times

The largest outbreak of COVID-19 in Pitkin County since the pandemic began in March 2020 occurred earlier this month in connection with hockey games played by both adults and kids, an official said Wednesday.

The 44 new cases so far associated with the outbreak — more are expected — prompted a statewide alert late Tuesday night by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment notifying the state’s other 63 counties of what happened in Pitkin County and asking that any cases possibly connected to the Pitkin County outbreaks be reported to local public health officials here, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.

“We were not expecting an outbreak of this size at this point,” Vance said Wednesday. “This was a very wide exposure event, so it’s difficult to discern where it came from. We think a lack of masks was a significant factor.”

The exposures all took place the weekend of Nov. 5-7, and are linked to hockey games at the Aspen Ice Garden, the ice rink at the Aspen Recreation Center and the Glenwood Springs Ice Rink. A total of 31 men and women and five children under 18 who either played in or attended the games that weekend tested positive for the virus. Eight more people exposed later by those who were initially sickened also tested positive for COVID-19, Vance said.

Of the 36 hockey-related cases, the vast majority were hockey players, though non-players also were infected. None of the cases of COVID-19 linked to the hockey outbreaks resulted in severe symptoms or required hospitalization, he said.

Technically, public health officials consider the COVID-19 hockey outbreak two separate incidents, “but there’s definitely some crossover between the two,” Vance said.

The first occurred among two junior hockey teams during a tournament held that weekend, which sickened the five players. The second took place during regular league games involving adults and infected at least one person from 10 different teams. Most of the teams were from Pitkin, Eagle or Garfield counties, though one was one from Routt County, he said.

Public health officials were inundated with the cases in about two days.

“They all came in almost at once,” Vance said. “It’s the largest outbreak we’ve had since the beginning of the pandemic.”

The city of Aspen, which owns the ARC and the Ice Garden, was notified Nov. 12 of 17 COVID-19 cases related to B-league and C-league hockey games, said Denise White, city communications director. A-league games were allowed to continue.

“Following guidance from Pitkin County Public Health, the adult hockey games on (Nov. 12) and (Nov. 14) were canceled,” White said Wednesday in an email to The Aspen Times.

The city was contemplating Wednesday what to do about the games this weekend, she said.

Regardless of when hockey returns, players will likely notice a difference the next time they play at the Ice Garden or the ARC. The city plans to re-double efforts to enforce the indoor mask policy among teams playing at those venues, White said.

“We’re going to zero tolerance on enforcement of the (indoor mask) policy,” she said. “I wouldn’t say there was lax enforcement (before), but we have the same challenges a lot of businesses and groups face here — and that’s being everywhere at once.”

City recreation officials are even pondering requiring each team appoint a mask monitor to enforce the rule, White said.

“It’s putting the onus on the teams playing,” she said. “If somebody slips up, game over.”

The Pitkin County Board of Health required mandatory indoor masks beginning Sept. 16 because of a high local COVID-19 transmission rate. The county issued face covering guidance for sports soon after.

“Pitkin County’s local Face Covering Order requires all individuals age 2 and older to wear a face covering over their nose and mouth whenever they are participating in indoor sports,” according to the online guidance. “Pitkin County’s Face Covering Order does not provide an exception for engaging in sports with others while indoors.”

Further, “any variance granted by the State of Colorado allowing an individual to remove their face covering while participating in certain sports such as hockey, (high school) spirit or (high school) wrestling does not apply in Pitkin County unless specifically authorized by Pitkin County Public Health,” the sports guidance states.

Keith Howie, Aspen High School hockey coach, posted a note online Wednesday informing his players — who use city hockey facilities — of the new normal when it comes to mask-wearing at the city facilities where they play.

“This includes gameplay on the ice, changing in the locker rooms and within the facilities always,” according to Howie’s note, which quotes a city employee in charge of the ice rink. “… (In) order to keep players on the ice and leagues going, we will be requiring masks always.”

The city also has ordered “hockey specific masks” that will sell for $10 each and be available in the next two weeks, according to Howie’s note.

Aspen rec hockey league at the Aspen Ice Garden in 2019.
David Krause/The Aspen Times

While public health officials think mask use was lax at the hockey games — some who tested positive admitted not wearing a mask while others said they wore masks at times — the game also lends itself to transmission because it involves close-contact play, Vance said. Spread may have occurred in locker rooms, as well.

Pitkin County public health officials are working closely with the leagues, which are cooperating, to continue case investigation and help them move forward.

Pitkin County’s high vaccination rate may have had something to do with the fact that none of the cases became severe or required hospitalization, Vance said.

The vast majority of the 31 adults who tested positive in the hockey outbreak were fully vaccinated, which may be the reason none of the cases became severe. And while a few had received booster shots of the vaccines, none of them had completed the 14-day waiting period necessary before the fullest immunity takes hold, he said.

“Something we’re noticing … is that almost all who tested positive got their last dose over six months ago,” he said. “We know there is a waning over time.”

Vance compared the virus to other diseases that require a few or more vaccine doses for protection, including polio, which requires four doses.

“For COVID, we may need more,” Vance said.

He said evidence shows that a COVID-19 booster shot provides significant additional protection.

Public health officials continue to emphasize that while fully vaccinated people can still get COVID-19 — the delta variant is virulent and likely responsible for the hockey outbreak — getting the vaccine will almost certainly guarantee a milder case of the virus if infection occurs, they say.

“Even with the outbreak, we haven’t seen any resulting hospitalizations,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Jordana Sabella said. “The normal course (of the vaccine) is doing its job.”

As of Wednesday, Pitkin County public health officials had not yet officially heard anything about more cases linked to the hockey outbreaks from other counties. However, Vance said he’d heard anecdotally that more cases do exist outside Pitkin County but have not yet been officially reported.

Before Nov. 9, Pitkin County was doing fairly well managing COVID-19 cases compared with the rest of the state. The incidence rate was slowly but surely going down, while the state’s was rising.

For example, between Nov. 3 and Nov. 9, Pitkin County’s daily number of new cases bounced between 28 and 33, while the incidence rate per 100,000 people ranged between 158 and 186, which isn’t low but is lower than the state average, according to the county’s online COVID-19 dashboards.

Then the toll of the hockey outbreaks began to push both numbers up. Beginning Friday, the daily case count jumped to 44, then 49 on Sunday, 52 on Monday and 53 on Tuesday. That pushed the incidence rate to 298 per 100,000 people on Tuesday, according to the dashboards.

“I think what’s apparent is how this outbreak affects the incidence rate and transmission in the county,” Sabella said. “We are such a small county, (so) we do feel the ripple effects.”

Subtracting the cases associated with the hockey outbreaks puts Pitkin County’s incidence rate at 155 on Wednesday, Vance said, which is lower than the incidence rate has been in two weeks, according to the online dashboards. He said he expects the rate to drop in the near future because no new cases associated with the hockey outbreaks have been reported since Friday.

Still, with the upcoming holiday gatherings, increased tourist activity, winter forcing everyone inside and delta still lurking, the near future could bring more cases, Sabella said.

“The pandemic’s not over,” she said. “This winter we’re really seeing it play out how transmissible the delta variant is.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the city of Aspen was notified Nov. 12; and the polio vaccine takes four shots.

RFTA had partial success offering vaccine bonus

RFTA lead mechanic Will Fabela, right, and Patricia Rosales Trigo disinfect a bus at the Aspen Maintenance Facility on March 12, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s financial incentive for employees to get the COVID-19 vaccination had strong but not overwhelming success, so the agency is looking into on-site testing for the winter.

RFTA started offering a $500 bonus last February when vaccinations became available. As of Oct. 26, 290 of the 370 employees, or 78%, had gotten vaccinated.

RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship said management wants to implement a testing program to make sure there isn’t an outbreak among the unvaccinated employees or breakthrough cases with those who were vaccinated.

“Staff is developing a (request for proposals) for an on-site rapid COVID testing program for unvaccinated employees and vaccinated employees who are experiencing symptoms,” Blankenship wrote in a memo to RFTA’s board of directors. “Currently it is estimated that a contract will be awarded by mid-December and that the program should be implemented on or before January 1, 2022.”

President Joe Biden announced in September there would be a vaccination mandate for federal employees and contractors and for private sector businesses with 100 or more workers. Qualified employers must require their employees to either be fully vaccinated or to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.

Although RFTA isn’t subject to the federal mandate, the management wants to implement the testing as “another layer of protection for all RFTA employees,” Blankenship wrote.

Blankenship told The Aspen Times after Thursday’s directors meeting that the agency believes it is within RFTA’s authority to require testing for those who don’t provide proof of vaccination.

“We’re hopeful everybody in the workforce will view it positively,” he said. “We don’t think it’s too much to ask people to get tested.”

Frontline employees are currently asked to affirm in writing that they are experiencing no symptoms when they report to work, regardless of whether or not they are vaccinated.

The rapid tests will likely be once or twice per week. The cost for a 24-week testing program is estimated in excess of $100,000, but how much more will be determined by the proposals.

RFTA management has not explored why 84 of the current employees have chosen not to get vaccinated. It is likely due to a variety of reasons, Blankenship said. The agency had 157 year-round and 12 seasonal and part-time drivers on staff as of Oct. 26. Its goal is to be up to 201 drivers by winter season, which started Nov. 22.

RFTA bus drivers and bus passengers are required by federal law to wear masks. RFTA went from 50% capacity on buses to 100% of seated capacity in June.

RFTA has taken a variety of steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees and passengers. It estimated it incurred more than $2 million in direct expenses in 2020 alone.

scondon@aspentimes.com

Eagle County issues public health order to contain outbreak at Cornerstone Christian School in Basalt

From left, Eagle County Attorney Bryan Treu and commissioners Matt Scherr and Kathy Chandler-Henry listen to Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, at Thursday’s emergency meeting of the board of health in Eagle.
Nate Peterson/Vail Daily

EAGLE — The Eagle County commissioners on Thursday signed a public health order directed at Cornerstone Christian School in Basalt to contain an ongoing COVID-19 outbreak that has reached 14 cases.

The signing of the order came at the close of an emergency meeting of the Eagle County Board of Health. Any person at the private Christian school who fails to comply with the order is subject to penalties ranging from fines up to $5,000 and jail time up to 18 months.

The hourlong meeting included a presentation by Heath Harmon, the county’s public health director, who provided a timeline of the county’s requests for the school to come into compliance with public health reporting of positive cases at the school. School board members Jonathan Jones, Norman Bacheldor and Amanda Pond, who is also a third-grade teacher at the campus, expressed contrition for the situation while also stating that the school hasn’t been lax about taking COVID-19 precautions.

“We don’t take this lightly. We’re not careless,” Bacheldor said.

Pond said as a staff member at the school, “I can say we’re meeting weekly and communicating protocols and what we need to be doing in our classroom and how we need to be taking temps of the kids when they come in and sanitizing at lunchtime and after lunch.”

The emergency meeting came a little more than a month after the Rev. Jim Tarr of Cornerstone Christian Church appealed to Eagle County Commissioners Kathy Chandler-Henry, Jeanne McQueeney and Matt Scherr to let his school determine its own policy on masks for students based on its religious status.

Tarr, who also is president of Cornerstone Christian School, which is located along Colorado Highway 82 between El Jebel and Basalt, said the parents of students at the school should determine whether masks should be required rather than Eagle County’s department of public health.

“In the role of society, children are not created to be obedient to any other system of government except for the wishes of their parents,” Tarr said on Sept. 30.

Tarr was not present at Thursday’s meeting because he was at home struggling with a case of COVID-19, Pond said. A longtime staff member at the school has died — likely the 32nd and most recent county resident to succumb to the virus since the outbreak began.

“Late in the afternoon of November 1, 2021, Cornerstone provided a partial and incomplete response to the ECPHE inquiry,” according to the order. “The correspondence from Cornerstone indicated that between October 1, 2021 and October 31, 2021, eleven (11) Cornerstone students and staff have reported positive cases of COVID-19, with one staff member now being deceased. None of those reports had been received by ECPHE in advance of this inquiry.”

And, as Jones explained to commissioners, the school’s inability to meet deadlines set by Harmon to come into compliance was, in part, due to the school’s administrator and secretary being in quarantine with COVID-19.

“Some of the issues that we faced right away, one of the individuals who was positive for COVID was our administrator at the school,” Jones explained. “With that being the case, trying to acquire this information without passwords and things like that, it was really just a hard situation to be in. The delay in the process was not us trying to not comply, it was just a logistical issue that we faced.”

Fighting over masks

Tarr took his case directly to the commissioners at their Sept. 30 meeting after he was told by the Eagle County Health Department the private Christian school must adhere to an indoor mask mandate that was extended Sept. 16 for all schools in the county. The order has since been extended to Dec. 17 as incidents rates remained elevated.

Eagle County’s COVID-19 incidence rate has risen from 187 cases per 100,000 on Oct. 22 to 318 cases per 100,000 as of Thursday.

Cornerstone Principal Emily Lambert submitted her resignation after the school determined it would defy the public health order. A meeting that was called for parents after Lambert’s resignation became “very polarizing” with “anti-maskers versus maskers,” a parent said.

Bacheldor made a point not to rehash the debate over masks Thursday, but he made clear that the school had managed the pandemic well before the current outbreak, with no major disruptions.

“During the height of COVID, we were maybe the only school that was able to stay open the whole time,” he said. “We had no outbreak at all. We didn’t have a COVID case. So we felt pretty good that we were pretty careful about what we were doing. I don’t know if we were less careful this time, but certainly the results were not the same as last year.”

Cornerstone Christian School is on Highway 82 in the Roaring Fork Valley between Basalt and El Jebel. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The current outbreak at the school first came to the attention of county officials last month after a complaint was filed to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. An initial investigation, with the help of public health departments in Garfield and Pitkin counties, led to the determination of four confirmed cases at the school, with more suspected.

Harmon’s office sent a letter Oct. 29 seeking cooperation with its investigation that asked the school to supply data about COVID-19 testing at the school for students and staff, details about any positive cases, copies of exposure notifications sent to families and Cornerstone staff, and student contact information.

The deadline for the school to provide the information was 2 p.m. Oct. 30, which school officials failed to meet. The school did provide a partial and incomplete response by the afternoon of Nov. 1 with the information that between Oct. 1 and Oct. 31, 11 students and staff members had reported positive cases, with one staff member dying from the virus.

Harmon mentioned Thursday that three more cases have emerged in the past two days, bringing the total to 14. And he also stated that the school’s inability to meet the Oct. 30 deadline came over a weekend in which a fall festival was held at the campus on Halloween, despite knowledge of the large number of COVID-19 cases and exposures associated with the school, with no known adequate mitigation processes and procedures in place.

Going to e-learning

To get the outbreak under control, the school has notified the county that it is moving students to e-learning. It had already moved certain cohorts to remote learning before the county had issued its letter Oct. 29.

“The protocols that were in place, as far as quarantining if anyone said they were sick, had symptoms, things like that, all of that was still happening,” Jones said. “I think it’s important that everyone know that it was not a situation where we weren’t doing anything at all. If someone reported an illness, they went home.”

The public health order that commissioners signed Thursday makes absolutely clear what the school needs to do when students and staff return. The school must report all positive cases of students and staff, it must report all previously requested information from the county, it must follow quarantine and isolation procedures for those who test positive or show symptoms, and face coverings will be required inside the school for those over the age of 2.

The order also says the school must cease and desist from tests performed by staff for other staff and students, and anyone who has not had a positive COVID-19 test in the past 90 days must be tested upon returning to school after quarantines have expired. Those who haven’t had a positive test in 90 days must also be tested two times a week until the order is expired or rescinded.

The school also cannot host any events for staff or students until the order is rescinded.

“I think it’s so important to have kids in the classroom, for the families and things like that,” Jones said. “But I think it’s absolutely necessary that we get this separation, as mentioned. In this process, it’s been a huge learning experience for all of us. I would just really reiterate that our intent was not to delay. Not to be an issue to the county. It was really logistical issues that we faced. The whole week has been a whirlwind for me.”

He added: “Our intent is to absolutely keep our students safe.”

Vaccine will be needed to enter some of Aspen Skiing Co.’s indoor properties, but not for lift access

Proof of COVID vaccination will be required this ski season for guests in certain indoor Aspen Skiing Co. venues and to participate in some activities, Skico announced Wednesday, but not for lift access.

The policy is in response to a growing number of COVID infections in Pitkin County and across the state and the country, Skico officials said in their announcement.

“Guests vaccines are required for all ASC owned and operated hotels, full-service seated restaurants, Powder Tours and additional experiences where prolonged close contact while unmasked might occur,” Skico said in a news release. “Proof of vaccination is not required for lift access, Ski & Snowboard School lessons, market-style restaurants, rental shops or ticket offices.”

Those 12 and older will be required to show proof of vaccination either with an approved vaccine card, photograph of a vaccine card or an approved vaccine verification application along with proof of identity when entering or checking in to the restricted facilities or activities.

“We put a great deal of thought in to this decision and feel that for the health and safety of our guests and employees this is a necessary step,” Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan said in the news release. “We want to provide the healthiest environment possible in order to give us the best shot at remaining open for the season and providing a safe work environment for our staff and the community at large.”

Last month, Vail Resorts announced proof of vaccination will be required for guests ages 12-older at all indoor, on-mountain quick-service (cafeteria-style) restaurants, but the proof of vaccination requirement does not apply to fine dining establishments.

Skico vice president of communications Jeff Hanle said Thursday there were two main reasons why the Aspen resorts’ cafeteria-style on-mountain restaurants were not included in the vaccine requirement but the fine-dining establishments were.

One is the logistics of checking the sheer amount of people going in and out of those buildings, including the Sundeck at Aspen Mountain or Elk Camp at Snowmass. The other is many of those visitors are there for a short time, whether it’s a quick bite to eat or just using the restrooms.

“In the fine-dining and sit-down establishments you have people who are in there for an extended amount of time — an hour or two hours — and in close proximity and unmasked once they sit down to eat,” he said. “The other places people typically are in and out a lot quicker.”

All of Skico’s employees will be required to be vaccinated unless they have a religious or medical exemption. Those with an exemption are required to be tested weekly.

Pitkin County is currently under an indoor mask mandate, which was enacted in September and likely will continue into the winter unless case counts drop.

Masks will not be required in lift lines, and Skico likely will keep the “ghost lanes” in place, according to Hanle.

“Per the county (mandate), gondolas will be considered indoor space and masks will be required,” he said.

PROOF OF VAX

Full-service fine dining where proof of vaccination required prior to being seated:

Cloud Nine (including the outdoor deck area)

Alpine Room Restaurant at High Alpine

Sam’s Restaurant (for sit-down dining access)

Lynn Britt Cabin (indoor dining area)

Stays at Aspen Skiing Co. hotel properties where proof of vaccination required at check-in:

Limelight Aspen

Limelight Snowmass

Limelight Ketchum

The Little Nell

Other instances where vaccination proof is required:

— All Skico hotel properties including Limelight and The Little Nell sit-down table service dining locations (required prior to being seated).

— Powder Tours (required at the start of the day).

— Aspen Mountain Club and Snowmass Mountain Club locker room and dining areas (required before entry).

— Equipment rental deliveries from Four Mountain Sports to homes or lodging locations (acknowledgment of vaccination at time of purchase and proof verified at delivery).

— Contained venues for large-scale events (required upon entry).

For a full list of locations and experiences visit www.aspensnowmass.com/covid19.

 

Cornerstone Christian School pastor says his students should be exempt from mask mandate

Pastor Jim Tarr of Cornerstone Christian Church and School speaks to the Eagle County commissioners on Tuesday.
Image from video recording

The pastor of Cornerstone Christian Church in the midvalley appealed to the Eagle County commissioners this week to let his school determine its own policy on masks for students based on its religious status.

Pastor Jim Tarr, who also is president of Cornerstone Christian School, said the parents of students at the school should determine whether masks should be required rather than the Eagle County Health Department.

“In the role of society, children are not created to be obedient to any other system of government except for the wishes of their parents,” Tarr said Tuesday during the public comment portion of the county commissioners’ meeting.

He said the school isn’t forbidding masks as a precaution against COVID-19. It is letting families choose.

“There are a lot of parents who say, ‘I do not want to cover my child’s face for eight hours a day, five days per week, 180 days per year,’” he told commissioners.

Cornerstone Christian School is located along Highway 82 between El Jebel and Basalt. It has about 100 students enrolled.

Tarr took his case directly to the commissioners after he was told by the Eagle County Health Department the private Christian school must adhere to an indoor mask mandate that was extended Sept. 16 for all schools in the county. Tarr said his school requested a religious exemption.

“We didn’t hear anything for about three weeks, and that happened when we were reported to the county health department,” Tarr said. “So in that process, we began to meet with them and just said, ‘How can we navigate through this?’”

The answer from the health department was to mask up. It’s an answer Tarr didn’t like, and it led to some turmoil at Cornerstone Christian School.

Principal Emily Lambert submitted her resignation after the school determined it would defy the public health order. A meeting that was called for parents after Lambert’s resignation became “very polarizing” with “anti-maskers versus maskers,” a parent said.

At least three families withdrew children from the school after the controversy erupted, according to one such parent.

As the standoff between the Christian school and county unfolded, county officials said it was their intent to meet with Tarr and explain why masks were required as a precaution against COVID-19. They said they weren’t interested in a heavy-handed enforcement action.

The county commissioners didn’t engage in conversation with Tarr. It is policy not to respond to public comment. County manager Jeff Shroll said Wednesday that no resolution had been reached between CCS and the county health department.

Tarr indicated Tuesday he took offense at the tone of emails he received from the county health department.

“I just want you to understand the nature of the emails that were coming to me,” he told the county commissioners. “They would include language such as this — that the Legislature of the state of Colorado has granted to the directors of health departments, that they can, if we’re not complicit with their mandates during a crisis, they can actually take control of what happens on our property, they can quarantine. It also included this idea: If we don’t align with a mandate, then the penalty can be a $5,000 fine and 18 months in jail.”

Tarr closed his 12-minute presentation by noting that former President Barack Obama was able to host a birthday party and not wear a mask during the pandemic without fear of getting fined or imprisoned.

“But you know what, what do I get from Eagle County? With all due respect, I get emails that are threatening, that carry threatening messages to me,” Tarr said. “And here’s the thing: If our policy ends up with me getting arrested or paying a $5,000 fine — trust me, I only have about one and a half $5,000 fines in me — then we’re done. But the truth is this: If the county (health department) comes against me, you have to understand it will be like shooting a fish in a barrel. I’m a little church and a little school, and I’m saying, please, let us live according to our faith.”

While Tarr didn’t make the case that the COVID-19 disease passes over students in religious schools, he did note that no classrooms had to be closed last year at CCS because of the pandemic.

scondon@aspentimes.com