New Pitkin County order limits residents’ movement, business and asks tourists to leave area

Jason Auslander
Aspen Times
Healthcare providers perform a real-time test for Coronavirus on patients with appointments outside of the Aspen Volunteer Fire Department’s Aspen Village Location on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The testing location is for patients with appointments scheduled through the Pitkin County Coronavirus Hotline. Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times
Screen Shot 2020-03-23 at 9.22.33 PM

Local public health officials issued a stronger public health order Monday closing all non-essential retail businesses in Pitkin County, including construction sites, and encouraging visitors and second-home owners to leave because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

The order states: “All individuals currently living within Pitkin County shall limit their movement and gathering with other individuals who are not in their immediate family. Individuals may leave their residence only to perform any of the following determined to be ‘essential activities.’”

Those activities included tasks essential to personal health and safety or the health and safety of family members like doctors’ appointments, grocery shopping, outdoor activity that respects social distancing, work at a defined “essential business,” and care for a family member or pet in an another household. 

A previous order restricted gatherings to 10 people or less. 

Liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries were exempted from the business closings — officials classified them as “essential services” — to avoid the long lines and possible virus exposures that occurred Monday in Denver when the city’s mayor closed those businesses beginning Tuesday, and then later exempted them. 

“From a public health standpoint, exempting those two things as essential is a bit of a challenge,” Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said Monday evening. “But in terms of how we saw the public react in Denver, that’s what we’re trying to avoid. So it’s a pragmatic decision.”

Meanwhile, officials are making plans to begin community-wide testing for the coronavirus in Aspen and Pitkin County, Peacock said. The county put in an order Monday for at least 1,000 tests from an Englewood-based company that received FDA approval the same day for its COVID-19 rapid response test, he said. 

That test — from Aytu Bioscience Inc. — requires only a finger-prick blood sample and will deliver results in two to 10 minutes at the same location where the test is administered, according to a Reuters story Monday on the FDA’s approval for the test’s distribution. 

The Aytu test works well for Pitkin County because it doesn’t have to be sent to a faraway lab, the results are available quickly, it requires medical workers to put on less protective equipment to collect the sample because it’s only a finger prick and it does not require the use of swabs, which the county is trying to conserve, Peacock said. 

“They will start taking orders (for the tests) this week,” he said. “We’re on the list for priority communities.”

The first shipment of 100,000 tests is expected this week by the Colorado company, according to the Reuters story. 

Pitkin County residents will not have to pay for the tests, though it’s not yet clear how much they will cost and whether the county might be reimbursed later by state or federal authorities, Peacock said. Pitkin County commissioners are scheduled Wednesday to vote on approving another $500,000 out of the general fund to pay for the area’s coronavirus response. If approved, the money would increase the county’s contribution so far to $1 million. 

Pitkin County requested more than 1,000 of the new tests, though it also isn’t yet clear how many officials here will initially receive. The tests might take a week or two to arrive, Peacock said. 

The tests are a first step in the county’s unfolding community-wide testing strategy that many residents have been urging, he said. 

“We have definitely got to do broad-based testing and identify who has (the virus) and make sure we’re applying proper quarantine strategies,” Peacock said. “That will allow us to track and mitigate the spread.”

How exactly that community-based testing strategy is deployed, including who is first tested, is still being worked out with the medical community, Peacock said. Meetings of doctors from Aspen Valley Hospital, primary care community physicians and other medical officials occurred Monday afternoon and evening, he said. 

“It would be great if we had a national strategy, but we don’t,” Peacock said. “It would be great if we had a state strategy, but we don’t.”

That leaves county and Roaring Fork Valley officials to figure out their own game plan, he said. 

“Yes, we’re working on broad-based testing,” he said. “But exactly what that looks like a week from now we don’t know.”

Bill Linn, assistant Aspen police chief and a spokesman for the team managing the local virus response, said Monday that officials are working on two community surveys related to the virus. One is for residents who believe they have symptoms indicative of COVID-19, while the other will survey people’s mental health, he said. 

Public health officials are being bombarded by local requests for statistics about locals with virus symptoms, Linn said. 

“That (survey) will help us put numbers to what we sense is going on in the community,” he said. 

Those surveys are expected to be online in the next few days, Linn said. 

Monday’s new Pitkin County public health order — which runs through April 17 — will close all “non-essential” retail businesses.

Businesses can continue to operate with employees working remotely or providing delivery or pickup services as long as they can comply with the public health order.

Exempted from the order are grocery stores, gas stations, banks, mailing and shipping services, laundromats, public and private transportation services convenience stores, pharmacies, hardware stores, public utilities and medical service providers. Liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries also will be allowed to remain open for pickup orders. 

All others, including some high-end retail stores in downtown Aspen that have remained open, must close. 

That includes construction sites, which were specifically mentioned in Monday’s order. 

“For clarity, residential and commercial construction is a business not listed as an Essential Business (in the order),” according to Monday’s directive. “Residential and commercial construction sites may continue minimum basic operations until March 31, 2020, for the purposes of safely securing and closure of their construction site.”

For businesses that offer lodging, the county will not allow new bookings, according to the new order. In addition, reservations and bookings until April 17 for all lodging including hotels, short-term rentals and lodges, “shall be canceled,” the order states.

“We’re asking visitors to please return home,” Peacock said. “We’re asking non-resident homeowners to return to their primary place of residence and self-quarantine once they’re home.

“Again, the idea is to limit the number of people coming into the community.”

The order does not require second-home owners now here to leave, but “strongly” encourages it, while advising those not here “not to travel to Pitkin County.”

Some lodging exemptions will be granted by the county’s public health director to house people who come here to help support the community’s response to the virus, Peacock said. 

Finally, Aspen Skiing Co. on Monday warned residents who’ve been taking advantage of the new snow and uphilling to observe social-distancing rules or risk the company closing area ski mountains to popular pastime. 

“Many Front Range areas (and Sunlight) have affirmatively banned uphilling due to overcrowding,” Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said in an email. “We do not want to have the same challenges here. 

“Further, an on-mountain accident is the last thing emergency responders and health professionals need to deal with at this time.”

Hanle reminded uphillers that no services will be available at ski areas, and to treat walking up the ski mountains “as you would if you were in the backcountry,” according to the email. He also emphasized the need for social distancing. 

“If you are uphilling with someone, do so while maintaining at least 6 feet of distance,” Hanle said. “Do not gather in groups or anywhere on or around the mountain. If a parking lot is full, please choose a different ascent or a different time.”

Also, snowmobiles are not allowed on any Aspen-area ski mountains by U.S. Forest Service regulations, which will be enforced, he said. 

“Please do not jeopardize … the access for everyone through your disregard of these regulations,” Hanle wrote in the email. “We ask the uphill community to help us in spreading the word on these regulations and to report those who continue to ignore these rules.”

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