Pitkin County officials throw Aspen restaurants risky lifeline
Amid a very low local coronavirus infection rate, members of the Pitkin County Board of Health decided to take a chance Thursday and try to throw local business a lifeline.
They will pursue opening restaurants in Aspen and Pitkin County at one-third capacity as early as May 20, and hotels and lodges to begin hosting some guests May 28.
“This is very aggressive,” said Dr. Kimberly Levin, Pitkin County’s medical officer and a physician at Aspen Valley Hospital. “This is a risk.”
In addition to the restaurant and lodging decision, the health board decided that second-home owners no longer have to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in town and can follow the same local protocols as residents.
Pitkin County’s newest public health order — which goes into effect Saturday — implements phase 1 openings, including retail stores, child care and gathering sizes of up to 10 people (from the previous five). That order will run through May 27, which also is the end of the state of Colorado’s “safer at home” order, the county board decided Thursday.
But local elected officials didn’t want to wait that long for the state to possibly open restaurants, whose owners have been pleading with local elected officials to be able to open.
Aspen Mayor Torre proposed Thursday that officials pursue a variance from the state’s current safer-at-home order that would allow local restaurants to open May 20 at 30% capacity. He got the idea from Mesa County, which applied for and received a variance in late April from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment allowing restaurants, gyms and places of worship to open on a limited basis.
And while Pitkin County public health officials went along with the idea somewhat reluctantly, elected officials on the health board said they wanted to throw restaurants a lifeline amid a desolate economic picture that pegs Pitkin County’s current unemployment at 21%.
“The consequences are too great … not to consider doing the variance,” Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman said.
Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler — chair of the health board — said business owners in her town, Aspen and Pitkin County need hope, which the variance would provide.
“(People say) ‘Give us a ray of hope. Give us a ray of sunshine,’” she said.
Commissioner Patti Clapper agreed.
“We do need some hope,” she said. “Torre’s idea is well worth considering.”
AVH’s Medical Advisory Team, which includes Levin, recommended the health board extend Pitkin County’s phase 1 order until June 6. That would allow two generations of the virus to propagate and spread, Levin said, and provide time to better determine future lifting of restrictions.
However, she also said the doctors are well aware of the “economic distress” caused by the virus and were open to balancing that with public health needs. Levin cited the low local infection rate and high degree of cooperation by residents to flatten the virus infection rate.
Levin said she believes the local restaurant community will take health guidelines seriously, and that opening May 20 “sounds reasonable” considering the local infection rate has remained at essentially zero for at least two weeks. AVH on Thursday reported having just one patient known or under investigation for COVID-19.
“We recognize the economic and psychological pressures and the great toll this has taken (on the community),” she said.
That said, hospital personnel and public health officials will be monitoring infection data closely and if it becomes necessary to dial back and clamp down on restrictions again, that is what will happen, Levin said.
“We want to ensure there’s a system of brakes on it,” she said.
The plan for the May 20 variance must be approved by the Board of Health, Pitkin County commissioners and the Aspen Valley Hospital Board before it can be forwarded to the state health department. That is no small task, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock, whose staff must put together the variance plan and shepherd it through three separate public boards in record time.
Peacock initially estimated it would take a few weeks, prompting protests from Torre.
“I will say to you that’s disappointing to hear,” Torre said.
Commissioners and the health board may meet on an emergency basis, if necessary, to address the variance question, while the AVH board meets Monday and can address it then, officials said.
The state took about a week to review and grant Mesa County’s variance once it received the request, Torre said.
The early opening will allow restaurants to figure out a new hygiene system that will take time to effectively implement, he said. Rob Ittner, former owner of Rustique restaurant who has been consulting with local restaurants, agreed and said restaurants need time to train staff, figure out seating and put new virus-related systems in to place.
“It’s really not about making money (now),” he said.
Board of Health members Brent Miller and Christina King also supported pursuing the variance.
It is not yet clear what Gov. Jared Polis will do about restaurants after the state’s order expires May 27.
However, Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s restaurant in Aspen, said that if the governor decides against opening restaurants, Pitkin County’s request for a variance will already be in the pipeline and provide a possible leg up for local restaurants. He called it “an insurance policy.”
Public health officials had been talking about allowing restaurants to open somewhere between May 28 and June 6, possibly at around 50% capacity. Torre, however, said Thursday he thinks that number might be too much.
“I think that’s a lot,” he said. “Thirty percent is still a pretty busy atmosphere.”
The other main question Thursday was lodging, the opening of which public health officials have said will go hand-in-hand with restaurants. Torre proposed allowing lodges to open after the state’s order expires at 35% capacity.
Local Aspen developer John Sarpa told health board members he’s been working with a group of area hotels to come up with protocols for opening up and said 35% is the break-even point, profit-wise, for the businesses.
“We’re comfortable with 35% as the right way to go as a first step,” Sarpa said.
Hotel and lodge owners are aware that the opening process is data-driven and if cases spike to unmanageable or crisis levels, restrictions could come back around, he said.
Airbnb and VRBO bookings are being looked at in a separate category and will not be allowed yet, Peacock said.
“The hotel and lodging community is more controlled and managed,” he said.
Condominium complexes that are run like hotels will probably be considered as hotels, but those that are not will have to wait, Peacock said later.
Finally, health board members agreed to rescind a previous order that second-home owners who come to Aspen and Pitkin County must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival. The requirement is difficult for law enforcement to enforce, and the county has spent time and money building a testing, contact tracing and quarantine infrastructure that takes into account part-time residents, officials said.
Peacock said the current testing and tracing system can handle a population of about 25,000. Pitkin County’s full-time population is just under 18,000.
Peacock pointed out that the quarantine rule was only for second-home owners, not visitors, despite messaging signs along Highway 82 that direct the quarantine rule to “visitors.”
King said she was uncomfortable rescinding the quarantine because it could look like an invitation to welcome visitors, which are not currently allowed and still won’t be come Saturday.
However, Suzuho Shimasaki, the county’s deputy public health director, said near the end of Thursday’s meeting that lifting the requirement for second-home owners really is the best way to implement the county’s virus-control strategy.
“Lifting the quarantine (rule) is way less riskier than other things passed earlier in this meeting,” Shimasaki said.
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