Aspen, Snowmass mayors lack votes to loosen rules
The mayors of Aspen and Snowmass Village on Thursday failed to persuade fellow members on the Pitkin County Board of Health to reopen restaurants to indoor dining under the less restrictive Orange level.
Saying they had majority support from their respective boards, Aspen Mayor Torre and Snowmass Mayor Bill Madsen sprang separate motions on the seven-member board to remove the Red-level limitations that took effect Jan. 17. Other board members could not go along with the proposals.
“I don’t think this should happen today,” said Greg Poschman, who as an elected commissioner represents Pitkin County on the board. “I really don’t.”
Despite Torre and Madsen’s unrealized attempts to recharge the restaurant sector, COVID-19 trends point to numbered days in the Red if the county’s incidence rate keeps dropping. By next week, the county could revert to Orange, said Jordana Sabella, interim public health director.
Put simply, if the county records an average number of seven positive COVID-19 cases per day, the incidence rate will go below 700 on Monday, county officials said. A 10-case daily average moving forward would have the county under 700 and in the Orange by Feb. 3, according to projections from county health officers. Public health set the threshold at 700 based on its capacity to contract trace and remain faithful to the “box-it-in strategy.”
Pitkin County’s incidence rate, which reflects the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population, was the highest in Colorado and one of the 20 highest in the U.S. when it hit 3,108 on Jan. 15. It had tumbled to 929 Thursday, according to Pitkin County’s daily epidemiology report. On Wednesday, the figure was 1,222.
Meanwhile at the meeting, Torre and Madsen made their motions following the board’s private talk, in executive session, concerning the Pitkin County Restaurant Alliance’s litigation.
The alliance, a collection of restaurants and other supporters, is suing the county, its public health department and interim public health director to bring back Orange-level restrictions.
On Wednesday and in advance of the board’s meeting, alliance attorney Chris Bryan submitted a letter to the county saying the health board’s decision to go Red has created more harm than good because of lost jobs and societal impacts. Local residents are suffering from economic uncertainty, mental struggles, domestic violence and substance abuse because of the pressures associated with business closures and “draconian” public health orders, the letter said.
“Not only has the County created a mass-unemployment public health crisis, but its health order actually makes COVID-19 worse,” said the letter, which also accused the county of hypocrisy by keeping the airport restaurant open to indoor customers. The county runs the airport.
Bryan’s letter concluded with a reference to Black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., saying “the words of Dr. King are as true today as they have ever been: ‘The time is always right to do what is right.’ The Board of Health has the opportunity now to do the right thing.”
Madsen was more forceful with his remarks, some of which also referenced Black America.
“To harken back to the George Floyd incident, we have put our foot on the throat of the restaurant industry and they can’t breathe,” he said.
The newly elected mayor also said would-be guests aren’t booking stays in Pitkin County because of a perception that it is under lock down. Hotels and the airport remain open, and restaurants remain allowed to serve diners outside and provide takeout service.
Madsen’s motion to allow indoor dining under the Orange level, effective immediately, failed to advance without a second from another board member.
More discussion prompted Mayor Torre to introduce a motion directing county public health to ease the county down to level Orange, which allows restaurants a 25% indoor seating capacity. Torre initially proposed an 11 p.m. curfew for restaurants before adjusting the time to 10 p.m. He had the support of Madsen, but that was it. The motion failed 5-2, prompting Torre to note that Orange levels don’t have curfews. His proposal would have included a 10 p.m. cutoff.
As board members debated the motion, Poschman was texting his BOCC colleagues to see where they stood. One of them, Patti Clapper, an alternate on the Board of Health, suggested officeholders on the health board face political forces that non-elected members don’t.
“For the rest of the board members, it’s easier to make your decision, but for those elected officials on this board, they really need to vote with the consensus of the boards they represent,” Clapper said.
Poschman, after calculating Clapper’s comments with his text messages, said the BOCC appeared to be 3-2 against going into Orange.
“I’m uncomfortable with the way this is going,” he said. “And in any event, if we’re going to make changes like this, my personal feeling is they need to be referred back to public health staff, because we need to analyze it.”
Dr. Jeanne Seybold, a Board of Heath member, said restaurants aren’t the only ones suffering. She also voted against Torre’s motion.
“We want to get the incidence rate down,” she said. “We need to get our kids back in schools. We need to get this virus out of this community so people will stop being exposed. The restaurants are not the only businesses and I love restaurants; I want them to open. I’ve been supporting them through gift certificates, but people who have concerts or gyms, they have not been able to operate at all, and our high school has been remote for weeks. We need to get this down because we need our kids back in school. They’re getting ‘D’s and ‘F’s. And some kids cannot learn remotely.”
Of the three public health metrics that inform the board’s public health orders — which include the percent positivity of COVID-19 tests and impacts on hospitalization in the central region of Colorado — Pitkin County’s incidence rate has been followed the closest.
Its high level was the catalyst for the Board of Health’s Jan. 11 decision to move from Orange to Red. And if it continues to go down, it will be the reason the county returns to Orange, a decision that can be made administratively and without board approval.
Returning to Red would take the county’s incidence rate holding above 700 for 14 days. It also would be forced into Red if one of the three metrics is red for 14 days and another metric goes Red for any period of time.
In a related development, the county officials said they have all but received clearance from Colorado to participate in the 5-Star State Certification Program, which loosens restrictions for participating businesses.
The county is confident enough it will receive approval that it is currently accepting applications from local businesses wanting 5-Star certification.