Pitkin County moving to Red-level restrictions, closing indoor dining
New rules go into effect Sunday after Monday’s Board of Health vote
With the highest incidence rate of COVID-19 in Colorado, Pitkin County will close indoor dining at restaurants effective Sunday and move fully into Red-level restrictions.
Monday’s unanimous decision by the seven members of the Pitkin County Board of Health also includes a 50% capacity limit on lodging in Aspen and Snowmass Village and assurances by Aspen Skiing Co. to improve COVID-19 protocols.
Ski mountains will remain open without a reservation system for the time being, though indoor dining at on-mountain restaurants will cease.
“We’ve communicated until our eyes are falling out,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, also a member of the board of health. “Yet we still have a lot of people … not agreeing with us.
“It’s time. We have to do this. It’s painful. It’s not forever.”
Outdoor dining, takeout and delivery at restaurants still will be available, though there will be an 8 p.m. last call and tables can only have people from the same household.
Indoor dining and the lodging cap were the major changes made Monday in the newest public health order, as most Pitkin County businesses and services — with the exception of restaurants — have been operating under Red-level restrictions since Dec. 21.
The new public health order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday, alters the metrics for when the county will move into and out of Red-level restrictions and makes them more lenient than state guidelines. Pitkin County, however, must show a 14-day decline in the skyrocketing incidence rate before the county will go back to Orange-level restrictions.
Pitkin County’s Board of Health voted Monday to move into Red-level restrictions starting at 12:01 a.m. Sunday. Here are some of the changes:
Indoor dining at restaurants is prohibited; use takeout, curbside or delivery options instead. Outdoor dining is permitted with those in your household.
Last call is at 8 p.m.
Improve mask and distancing enforcement.
No indoor dining.
Continue to monitor capacity and implement reservation system if target capacity is exceeded in accordance with the Ski Area Plan.
Enforce one household per unit regardless of when reservation was made.
Limit capacity to 50% occupancy (determined on a weekly basis).
The incidence rate hit 3,046 on Friday, and stood at 2,934 on Monday, with the effects of Christmas and New Year’s not having hit yet, according to Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist, and local epidemiology data.
“Three thousand in a 14-day period is extremely high,” Vance said.
The highest incidence rate in the state — the closest second Monday was Bent County at about 2,500 — means 1 in 35 Pitkin County residents is currently infected with COVID-19, said Jordana Sabella, interim public health director.
“We’re not doing real well with preventing disease,” she said.
Vance said he’s done “a ton of research” into why Pitkin County is experiencing such a major surge, while none of the county’s neighbors and most of the rest of the state are not, to no avail.
“I can’t give you a great answer at this time,” he said. “We haven’t fallen on to any one indicator.”
Monday’s hospitalization rate showed two people were checked into Aspen Valley Hospital on Sunday with COVID-19, when they are automatically put into the ICU. The county’s positivity rate Monday was at 12.7%, according to the local data.
The state of Colorado previously kept most counties it moved to Red at that level of restrictions for five to six weeks, Sabella said. At that time, the state required the incidence rate to go below 350 in order to move out of Red, though the governor recently moved all counties that were in Red to Orange because of declining incidence rates.
On Monday, the Pitkin County Board of Health adopted a public health staff recommendation to move to Red if the incidence rate is above 700 for 14 days. The same thing would happen if the positivity rate hit Red level thresholds for 14 days and the hospitalization rate hit those thresholds for just one day, or vice versa.
The county will move out of Red-level restrictions and back to Orange when the incidence rate drops below 700 and has been decreasing for 14 days. The 700 level was chosen because county contact tracers and disease investigators can handle the number of cases associated with that number, Vance has said.
In an effort to try to get restaurants and other local businesses running at the highest capacity possible once the incidence rate decreases, the county will also begin preparations to start a state program that will allow them to operate with lesser restrictions provided they agree to certain COVID-19 protocols.
County officials will apply to the state to start the so-called 5 Star Program and have it in place for businesses that want to participate once the incidence level drops, Sabella said. The program cannot go into effect until the incidence rate declines for 14 days and lands below 700, the positivity rate is below 10% and less than 90% of hospital beds are in use.
As far as skiing is concerned, the area’s four ski mountains will remain open, though indoor dining at on-mountain restaurants will close Sunday when the rest of the county’s indoor dining stops, according to the new public health order. Aspen Skiing Co. has committed to improving facemask and social-distancing enforcement on ski mountains, but will not implement a reservation system, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock.
That’s because Skico has not exceeded capacity limits outlined in its operating plan approved by the state in November for even one day so far this season, Peacock said. Those capacities were blocked out of a copy of the report provided to The Aspen Times because they were deemed proprietary information.
If the skier numbers begin to exceed those capacities, Skico officials are prepared to implement a reservation system, he said.
The lodging sector has agreed to continue to enforce the one-household-per-unit rule, Sabella said. The exception to that rule used to allow two households in the same unit if the reservation had been made by December. That exception no longer applies, and only one household per unit will be allowed under the new public health order without regard to when the reservation was made, she said.
County officials will also monitor lodging capacity in town on a weekly basis and cap it at 50%, Sabella said.
Kurt Dahl, the county’s environmental health director, told health board members he’s been charged with enhancing enforcement of public health orders, and is looking to the county’s Open Space and Trails rangers for a model. Plans also include more accountability measures for businesses that cater to private parties, like DJs, party planners, caterers, valets, property managers, party hosts and party guests, he said.
Board members also decided not to create a posting of restaurants and other businesses hit by outbreaks. Sabella said the problem has often been dealt with by the time of the reporting, which would needlessly penalize businesses if people used the posting to avoid them. Such action might also discourage disease reporting. That information is posted on a state outbreak website.
Businesses that receive citations or other enforcement actions, however, may soon see those posted, Dahl said.
Pitkin County’s communications team also plans to roll out campaigns to promote takeout at restaurants and better support businesses, post the state public health department’s Pitkin County Report Card issued three times a week online and post the local epidemiology report online, he said.
Officials also are working on providing information to individuals and families about the assistance available to them from local, state and federal sources. Pitkin County will host a community meeting Thursday at 6 p.m. to discuss the changes and the resources available. (Go to at covid19.pitkincounty.com for more information.)
The fate of Aspen’s restaurants took up most of Monday’s four-hour board of health meeting.
Several local restaurant owners spoke up in favor of keeping them open at the current 25% indoor dining level.
Wendy Mitchell, owner of Meat and Cheese and Hooch, advocated for closing all businesses in town for the shortest amount of time possible to cause the least impact.
“We’re encouraging people to come here,” she said. “We’re encouraging people to travel. You have to take all of these aspects into affect and not just punish restaurants.”
However, other community members spoke up in favor of the stricter restrictions.
“I’m on the front line,” said Dr. Greg Balko, an emergency room physician at AVH. “I see first hand what’s going on. We’ve gotta do something. We can’t keep doing what we’re doing because the numbers keep going up.”
Board members did make one concession to restaurants, though. The new public health order was set to go into effect Friday, though the board postponed it until Sunday to give restaurants more time to cook and sell off perishable items in their kitchens.
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