Aspen eateries, businesses navigate how to help community spirit and avoid coronavirus spread
Walking through the streets of Aspen on Sunday the morning after the state’s ski areas were ordered to close, there was a greater mix of vacant businesses and restaurants among lively retail shops and eateries.
A busy, open White House Tavern contrasted the empty, dark inside of Tatanka Western Bistro next door, which a window sign said would be closed until May.
Carl’s Pharmacy was open, but employees with masks and gloves shopped for customers, bringing items to its side door for purchase instead of letting people inside.
Other restaurants and businesses around town had new and remaining signs posted in their windows either informing people of their closures to help stop the spread of COVID-19, or of the sanitary and social distancing precautions they were taking to stay open and continue to serve the local community.
For Adam Malmgren, one of Mi Chola’s managing partners, the decision to remain open or closed because of COVID-19 is tough to navigate, which is why the restaurant is closing for one day Monday so staff can have time discuss its next steps.
“One of the strongest pillars of our business model is to be a place for the locals, so we want to do all we can to continue to serve the local crowd,” Malmgren said Sunday afternoon. “We’re doing the best to find that line between being there for the community and following the CDC guidelines.”
To help limit the spread of the novel coronavirus and meet social distancing guidelines, Malmgren said Mi Chola has taken out half of its tables and stopped serving altogether once its kitchen closes to keep the restaurant from becoming a gathering spot.
In response to the rapidly changing situations caused by the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, the Aspen Community Foundation has established the COVID-19 Regional Response Fund to respond to immediate and longterm needs of people from Aspen to Parachute, according to an ACF news release. Monies raised will be disbursed to nonprofit organizations or government entities to support access to appropriate healthcare, food, rent and utilities assistance, and other emergency services for individuals and families impacted by COVID-19.
The fund is open to donations from residents, companies and private foundations. Those wishing to contribute can do so at http://www.aspencommunityfoundation.org/covid-19-regional-response-fund.
Malmgren also said he checks the CDC website every day and ensures his employees don’t come into work if they are feeling sick, but feels it is going to take the entire Aspen community finding a balance together to address the local COVID-19 outbreak.
“One of the main reasons we want to stay open is we want to continue to serve the community but still adhere to the social distancing guidelines,” Malmgren said. “The only way we’ll survive this is as a community.”
Ryan Sweeney, owner of both Ryno’s Pub and Pizzeria and Silver City Mountain Saloon, said he wants to continue to serve the community but is concerned with encouraging large gatherings by doing so.
He said he and his business partner kept Silver City Mountain Saloon open over the weekend thinking it could be a place for individuals and small groups to meet, but instead found it attracted larger numbers of people who “acted like there was nothing going on.”
That’s why Sweeney and his business partner decided Saturday evening to close Silver City, and why starting Monday Ryno’s will be take-out only, allowing customers to order over the phone or at the front door but not allowing anyone inside.
“People need food, people need to eat and I know we’re an affordable option in town so we want to keep feeding the community and ensure no one goes hungry,” Sweeney said.
When asked if it’s been harder to order food and goods for Ryno’s since the COVID-19 outbreak, Sweeney said he hasn’t had a problem getting food but that paper and disposable supplies are “drying up,” even from major supply companies.
Sweeney said he’s had to reduce his workforce by roughly 75% as a result of shifting to carryout only, noting that many Aspen-area businesses are encouraging laid off employees to file for unemployment.
“I can’t commit to making up lost wages at all,” Sweeney said. “If I commit and this goes on for another two to three weeks, I could be out of a business.”
He went on to say he feels many locals aren’t taking the county public health order and social distancing requirements seriously, and that it is his responsibility as a business owner to limit his operations to in turn help limit the opportunity for larger group interactions and COVID-19 spread.
“Caution is No. 1. I feel we’d be doing a disservice if we opened normally and operated as if nothing is going on,” Sweeney said.
But for Michaela Carpenter, one of Local Coffee House’s three owners, she feels it would be a disservice if her shop was not open to the community as a place for individuals and small groups to gather, especially now that the ski areas are closed.
“There’s a lot of negative impacts to mental health that come with social distancing,” Carpenter said, noting that Local Coffee is trying to find a balance between encouraging connection and social distancing.
“We really want to provide a hygienic community space. Even if they can’t closely interact with others, people can find some community here.”
Carpenter said she was discouraged when she learned the state’s ski areas would shut down for a week as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. She feels skiing is a healthy, more individual activity people can take part in.
Audrey Holmes, a resident who has lived in Aspen full-time for 18 years, said she also was discouraged when the ski areas closed Sunday. She said she skis every day and that getting out in the fresh air is good for her well-being.
As Holmes stood near a handful of others outside of Carl’s Pharmacy waiting for employees to bring them their purchased items to the store’s side door, Holmes talked about how she feels badly for the families who are in a bind because their children don’t have school and for the elderly residents who are more isolated.
She thinks getting the ski areas back open will help the community’s well-being as a whole.
“I think skiing is vital in this town, especially for locals who live here. We all love to be on the mountain and most of us are out there every day,” Holmes said. “I’ll start skinning up, of course, but hopefully they open again.”
When Stacy Adler, pharmacy manager at Carl’s Pharmacy, found out the state’s ski areas were being ordered to close, she had a different reaction from some locals.
“Once we heard the ski slopes were closing we were like, ‘OK, this is serious,’” Adler said of Carl’s Pharmacy.
That’s why Sunday, the first day of the closure and a slower business day, the pharmacy implemented its employees-shop-for-customers strategy, which Adler said local medical professionals encouraged her to implement late last week.
“It was a hard thing to put in place but we felt Sunday was a good day to start so we could figure out how to do it,” Adler said. “We’re going to take it day by day.”
Adler said as the local outbreak evolves the pharmacy’s operations will evolve, too, acknowledging that she has a team of volunteers ready to help deliver food and goods to people self-isolated or unable to get to the store if needed.
Similar to Sweeney, Adler said the warehouses Carl’s Pharmacy gets its goods from seem to be stretched, but that the store is doing everything it can to remain open so people can continue to access medicine and other items.
“We know how important it is to have access to pharmaceuticals, and our goal is to keep that access but to do it in a safe way for everyone,” Adler said. “From what I see and have read, being more proactive may lose money in the short term but will save so much money and so many lives in the long term.”
Despite the ski area closures, many locals were out Sunday biking, walking, skinning and taking part in other outdoor activities besides downhill skiing or snowboarding.
Pitkin County officials recommend getting outside alone or with household members, but emphasize that avoiding groups and gatherings with people outside of your household is absolutely paramount, as “anecdotally we know we have transmission in our community. We can make assumptions that people showing symptoms of it probably have COVID-19,” a community letter released by county officials Sunday said.
The letter acknowledged that Pitkin County, Aspen and Snowmass officials are deeply concerned about the economic impacts of the cancellations and closures made to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and that the county will continue to find a balance between the safety of the community as a whole and the economic well-being of local workers and businesses.
“We are renowned for our spirit and our ability to persevere,” the community letter said. “Let’s demonstrate compassion, patience and above all, an unfailing effort to support each other.”
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