Pitkin County limits size of informal gatherings to 5 just before Halloween weekend
Pitkin County currently investigating 11 COVID breakouts in area
Just in time for Halloween, the Pitkin County Board of Health voted Thursday to reduce the size of informal gatherings from 10 to five for at least the next two weeks.
The decision — a 4-2 divided vote — came on the heels of news that the county’s incidence rate of COVID-19 rose above the threshold between Level 2 and Level 3 restrictions on Tuesday and Wednesday, which could lead to harsher community restrictions.
“There are 11 outbreaks we’re investigating in Pitkin County,” said Public Health Director Karen Koenemann. “A lot are related to informal gatherings. So what we’re seeing is more disease transmission because of these gatherings.”
The informal gathering cap of five people goes into effect Friday and can include a maximum of two households. The state’s current public health order caps informal gatherings at 10 people and a maximum of two households.
The five-person maximum does not include restaurant seating — now capped at 10 per table — or work places, child care centers, family households larger than five people or any events that need or have been issued a permit by public health.
The state grades counties on three metrics when it comes to COVID-19: incidence rate based on 100,000 population, positivity rate and hospitalization rate. Pitkin County ranks in the lowest category in the state in positivity rate and hospitalizations, according to statistics Thursday.
However, the county’s incidence rate is a problem.
It cannot go above 175 per 100,000 population for three consecutive days or the state contacts local public health authorities and requires a mitigation plan to bring the rate back down. If it remains above 175 for two weeks, the state will move Pitkin County to Level 3 restrictions, which will make life more difficult for restaurants, businesses and the community as a whole.
Pitkin County’s incidence rate was 185.9 on Tuesday and Wednesday, though it dropped back down to 152.1 on Thursday, according to online statistics.
“Our goal is to change the path we’re on,” said Suzuho Shimasaki, deputy public health director.
The county has a mitigation plan should the state require it, and part of it is to limit informal gatherings, Koenemann said.
Three of the 11 outbreaks — which have occurred in the past 28 days — have involved informal gatherings in Pitkin County, said Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist. One involved a large party that police stumbled on to while investigating a noise complaint, Koenemann said.
Vance said informal gatherings tend to produce more and serious cases than other outbreaks at work places or schools. Anecdotal evidence suggests that closer proximity in such settings and more time to be exposed might infect a person with a stronger viral load, he said.
The county reported four new cases Wednesday, two on Tuesday and two on Monday, while 108 people currently are under quarantine orders, Vance said. The county has reported a total of 284 positive cases since the outbreak began in March.
The proposal to reduce informal group size was not uniformly accepted at Thursday’s Board of Health meeting. Aspen Mayor Torre initially balked at the reduction, but agreed to support it when Vance said there is a “marked difference” between spread among a group of 10 as opposed to 5. Torre also said he thought the reduced group size would be a good idea with Halloween coming up on Saturday.
“This is difficult,” he said. “My hope is this is a two-week measure.”
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman voted against the five-person cap because it is unenforceable and inconsistent with the state order, which could confuse people.
“Especially when 10 (people) can co-mingle in a restaurant,” he said. “I’m not sure I understand here.”
Koenemann and Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said enforcement — except in egregious cases when police or public health must step in — is up to everyone in the community.
“We cannot enforce our way into boxing this virus in,” Peacock said. “Everyone needs to continue taking responsibility and fighting through the fatigue to changes we’ve all had to make in our lives.
“We can’t enforce our way out of this. We have to behave our way out of this.”
At-large health board member Jeannie Seybold cast the other dissenting vote against reducing the informal gathering cap. Snowmass Village Mayor and health board Chair Markey Butler, Torre and members Brent Miller and Linda Vieira supported the reduction.
Peacock emphasized the need for community members to remain vigilant of social distancing and avoiding crowds on Halloween. Go to covid19.pitkincounty.com/Halloween for tips and suggestions for safer alternatives to the usual Halloween activities.
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Garfield County counted five new deaths attributed to COVID-19 over the past six weeks, even as the county’s vaccination rate continues to go up.