Aspen, Snowmass business operators try to prepare for Pitkin County’s pending status change
New Pitkin County restrictions on businesses and gatherings have local businesses quickly adapting to tight regulations aimed at mitigating the spread of COVID-19 — and preparing for even harsher rules that may come as a result of rising coronavirus case numbers in the county.
Pitkin County could enter “Orange” restrictions at 5 p.m. Thursday, capping restaurants, retailers, gyms and other establishments at 25% of their normal capacity but the Board of Health hasn’t decided which color it will move to yet. The county’s current incidence rate is well above the “Red” limit of 350 cases per 100,000 people, putting it at risk of joining nearly a dozen Colorado counties that moved to Red level on the state’s newly modified COVID-19 dial Tuesday.
Whereas Red was the highest level on the old dial and could have spurred shutdowns, the modified dial places it a step below a new “Purple” category for “extreme risk” that will trigger stay-at-home orders. Red level is now the last stopgap of tighter restrictions before most nonessential businesses would be shuttered.
The Board of Health will determine which level is will change to at a meeting Thursday, with restrictions to go into effect at 5 p.m.
But even the possibility of tighter regulations has some businesses concerned.
“It’s very difficult right now,” said Tiziano Gortan, owner of L’Hostaria Ristorante on East Hyman Avenue in Aspen. “Daily, we have different information.”
Gortan said he was especially worried about how potential Red restrictions banning indoor dining would impact his restaurant and his employees if put into effect in Pitkin County.
At L’Hostaria, where outdoor dining space is extremely limited at best, the prospect of losing indoor dining could be a huge blow to a restaurant that has historically performed well in the offseason. Under Orange restrictions, the restaurant can still operate indoors at 25% capacity, but the potential for Red restrictions means restaurant management is still figuring out its next steps.
“I respect and I hope these people with this kind of power, they take consideration of normal people,” Gortan said of health officials who make the call. “It’s hard, it’s difficult.”
When Pitkin County announced harsher restrictions on businesses last week to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, many were prepared to adapt. Under the previous COVID-19 dial colors, Orange guidelines would have gone into effect Wednesday, capping restaurants, gyms, retailers and places of worship at 25% capacity, indoors and outdoors.
That 25% retail capacity limit proposed last week won’t apply under the new Red restrictions; they still can operate at 50% capacity. And for some shops preparing to open for the ski season, the announcement this week may even be an opportunity to test crowd control efforts and staffing before demand increases.
Duke Taylor, who owns Gene Taylor’s Sports in Snowmass Village, said Sunday that he sees the capacity limits as a chance to do a “practice run” before business picks up during the peak winter season.
“If we were busy, that would be tougher,” Taylor said of restrictions coming during the offseason. “Maybe it will be a good practice to operate with limited people in here.”
Taylor said that it will be a juggling act to keep the store sufficiently staffed without maxing out on capacity.
“The doors are open and you want to have people come in — you just watch it,” Taylor said. “It will be a ‘work together’ kind of thing.”
At other businesses, that proposed 25% capacity limit would have barely made a dent in already-reduced foot traffic. In a phone interview Sunday, Jean-Robert Babette, who owns the 12,000-square-foot Jean-Robert’s Gym on East Hyman Avenue, said some businesses might even consider themselves lucky to reach the new capacity limits.
“I’m willing to go to 25%, because I was at 26% before,” Babette said.
But new restrictions could bring gym capacity down to just 10%. When reached for a follow-up Tuesday afternoon, Babette says even that number is preferable to closures.
Pitkin County is nearing a tipping point for much harsher restrictions and potential stay-at-home orders, a change Babette worries could drastically impact local businesses and the well-being of his employees.
“People today are no longer living month to month — they are living week to week,” Babette said.
He’d be willing to extend gym hours and require people to wait outside to stay under the capacity limits, if that’s what it takes to keep his staff employed.
“I would (rather) be open at 10% than not at all,” Babette said. “I just want to stay open.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the new Red level restrictions will let retailers continue to operate at 50% capacity.
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The Red Onion, a long-enduring Aspen drinking establishment, will close Sunday due to plummeting sales brought on by the pandemic.