Aspen restaurant openings won’t come next week; Pitkin County works on new exemption

Customers fill the dining room at the Hickory House in Aspen.
Leigh Vogel/The Aspen Times |

Restaurants in Aspen and Pitkin County will not open next Wednesday.

Members of Aspen Valley Hospital’s Board hinted Monday they thought May 20 was too soon to allow in-house diners, even at 30% capacity, and Pitkin County commissioners left no doubt Wednesday where they stand.

“Safety of the public is the No. 1 concern,” Commissioner Greg Poschman said. “I think the 20th is probably not going to happen.”

Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said the decision about whether to apply to the state for an exemption from the current safer-at-home public health order — a path approved by the county’s Board of Health last week — “has kept me up at night.”

She said she understood the need to provide hope and support to the restaurant community, but that getting out ahead of case data and documented virus infection rates is not the way to do so.

“Hope can’t be a mirage,” McNicholas Kury said. “Heeding science is the fairest thing we can do. It is blind to whatever person, whatever sector is at the table.”

Commissioners, however, did not abandon restaurants and bars.

They decided to direct county staff to put together an application to the state’s public health department asking for an exemption to whatever the state public health order will become after May 27, in favor of Pitkin County’s “Roadmap to Reopening.”

Essentially, commissioners said they wanted local control to make local decisions based on local conditions.

“This allows flexibility,” Commissioner George Newman said, “but we will base it on the roadmap.”

Gov. Jared Polis has indicated that he will provide direction May 25 on what will happen with restaurants when his current order expires.

Pitkin County’s Roadmap to Reopening — available at ­ — is a three-phased approach to opening businesses, restaurants and hotels.

Moving to each phase depends on five criteria: a drop in COVID-19 cases for at least 14 days; the number of hospital patients remains manageable; testing is available to all with virus symptoms; contact tracing and quarantine monitoring is available; and social distancing protocols are clear and in place.

Public health officials have said each phase will take at least four weeks ­— which incorporates two generations of virus infection — before a decision can be made to move on.

Pitkin County is currently able to meet those five criteria, which is why phase 1 began Saturday with the opening of “non-essential” retail businesses, increasing group size from five to 10 and other looser refinements to the order, County Manager Jon Peacock has said.

Infection numbers have continued to remain low in the county — even since construction was allowed to begin April 23 — which is also why Pitkin County appears on track to implement phase 2 when the current public health order expires May 27, Peacock said Wednesday.

Through Tuesday there have been 54 confirmed cases in Pitkin County since March 8 and two deaths, according to state data.

In fact, the numbers of coronavirus cases in the Roaring Fork Valley — Pitkin County, western Eagle County (562 cases and eight deaths, but it does not break out cases specific to Basalt and El Jebel) and Garfield County (112 cases, two deaths) — have remained low in recent weeks, he said.

That is especially noteworthy considering that construction is bringing far more people to the Aspen area than opening retail businesses during offseason will, Peacock said. More than 350 construction safety plans have been filed in Pitkin County since construction site were allowed to begin activity again, he said. That number does not include landscaping plans.

“We’re not seeing a big bump in (cases in) the valley,” Peacock said.

Applying to the state for an exemption based on the reopening roadmap allows the county flexibility depending on what the state decides to do, he said.

Newman said he is far more concerned about opening lodging than he is about opening restaurants anyway. Because it’s still offseason, restaurants will likely be used mainly by locals, he said. But opening lodging is a big step to the next level.

“Then it’s a game-changer,” Newman said. “We’ll be bringing people in from around the country.”

Aspen Mayor Torre, who proposed the May 20 exemption at last week’s Board of Health meeting, said Wednesday after the county meeting he was supportive of the commissioners’ comments and actions. He said he was never unilaterally set on May 20 as a restaurant opening date and supports a “very cautious approach” to their opening.

“It’s not about being soon,” he said in a phone interview, “it’s about being safe.”

Aspen Valley Hospital’s board declined to weigh in on the economic question posed by the proposed exemption Monday. Instead, board members signaled their support for the county’s reopening plan.

County staff members will proceed with an application to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for the exemption affirming Pitkin County’s reopening roadmap, Peacock said. That application must be approved by the AVH Board, the Board of Health and county commissioners before it can be submitted.

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