Aspen hoteliers urge compliance by local crowd, won’t lower their capacity

A view of an empty Hotel Jerome on Main Street in Aspen, March 30, 2020. (Maddie Vincent/The Aspen Times)
Maddie Vincent/The Aspen Times

Amid a rising number of COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County and tighter restrictions on retailers, members of the local hospitality industry clung to the hope Tuesday that business over the December holidays can be salvaged through community cooperation.

A virtual meeting hosted by Aspen Chamber Resort Association drew nearly 50 attendees and was held among lodge operators and Pitkin County health officials, as well as the Aspen mayor and city manager, among others. Government officials wanted to know how the lodging community could join them on the local front to contain the virus’ spread as COVID-19 numbers continue to surge with the holidays approaching and ski season starting Thanksgiving Day.

Less than 90 minutes after the meeting ended, Gov. Jared Polis, citing an “exponential growth curve” in COVID-19 cases, said during a news conference that 10 to 15 counties will move into the Red phase, or severe risk, on the state’s COVID-19 dial by Friday at the earliest.

Pitkin County will move from the color Yellow, which means cautious, into a phase yet to be determined by the Board of Health at 5 p.m. Thursday. One possibility is Orange, which places a 25% indoor capacity at restaurants, gyms, retailers and offices, for example.

The county is eligible for a red status, which means severe risk, because it has an incidence rate of 350 cases per 100,000 people.

“Pitkin County remains at risk of moving into this Red level and determining what is best for our community,” said a statement the county issued Tuesday afternoon.

Hoteliers said they were willing to stay the course with rigid protocols already placed on guests and employees, but they ruled out any self-imposed restrictions such as lowering their capacities.

Independent of the government, lodges could ask guests to be tested for the coronavirus 72 hours before arriving to Aspen, said the county’s Jordana Sabella. Another idea floated by Stephane De Baets, president of Elevated Returns, which owns the majority of St. Regis Aspen Resort, was for the hotel community to set up its own private testing for guests and employees.

Coming off a stronger-than-expected summer, hotel operators said the colder months will pose greater challenges for lodges, even if the state’s tighter restrictions don’t apply to hotel and lodging capacities.

However, as noted by those at the virtual roundtable, under the Red phase — which is nearly a lockdown — restaurants at lodges won’t have dine-in service. An 8 p.m. curfew for restaurants and retailers, which also could come under a Red phase, also is a deterrent, they said.

As well, Stay Aspen Snowmass, in an occupancy report released Tuesday, noted that winter bookings are on the rise but “at a much slower pace than we’ve historically seen.”

“December is currently down 17.8%, largely concentrated over the holiday weeks,” the report said.

Hospitality people said they are willing to keep doing what they have been doing, noting that lodging operations were conducted tightly over the summer with commitments to tight pandemic protocols practiced by their employees and guests.

COVID-19 cases were relatively flat in Pitkin County during a summer busier with more tourists coming here than city finance department projections, with lodges averaging occupancy rates of higher than 50% in July, August and September, according to the Stay Aspen Snowmass report.

“I think the message from the lodging community is (that) we’re not going to change anything,” said Jeff Bay, managing director of HayMax Hotels, which runs Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson Lodge. “What we’ve done has been hugely successful during the summer. … The thought of imposing unfounded restrictions isn’t a solution.”

Hoteliers expressed frustration that the rise of cases in Pitkin County is arguably due to the lackadaisical offseason behavior of local residents — not visitors.

“It seems the lodging community understands what we need to do,” said Tricia McIntyre, who runs Aspen Luxury Vacation Rentals. “We have guests sign waivers, we have them sign agreement and commitments. We’re also providing masks and hand sanitizers when they check in. I think as far as the lodging community is concerned, we’re pretty much on top of that.

“I think the question is how to get the employees, employers and locals to step up to their level of education on the significance of spreading,” she said.

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