Aspen’s new normal: Pitkin County health director maps out lifting of restrictions for coming weeks, months
Though local and state officials are starting to unwind the restrictive public health orders that have kept most Colorado residents at home for more than a month, they also have made clear that life won’t return to normal until scientists invent a vaccine for the coronavirus.
With that milestone unlikely for perhaps as long as 18 months, The Aspen Times asked local public heath officials what the “new normal” in Aspen and Pitkin County might look like during that in-between period when life is expected to drift back to something vaguely resembling the familiar.
“I feel for people,” said Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann, who became emotional last week talking about community members struggling because of the virus. “I don’t know how to express how hard it is impacting someone’s life.
“It’s huge. I’d like to say that that sucks.”
But, then, so does a worldwide pandemic that’s so far killed more than 50,000 Americans, according to updates released Friday, and nearly 200,000 worldwide. In Pitkin County, officials feel they have reached a point where they have got a handle on the virus, with infections and hospitalizations decreasing, health care workers mostly healthy and a mortality rate that has remained at two deaths for weeks, Koenemann said. Through Thursday, there have been 59 confirmed cases in Pitkin County.
Now, it’s time to move into a new phase in the fight against COVID-19.
Beginning Friday, the Pitkin County Public Health Department planned to put all of its energy — fortified with a good chunk of newly hired, virus-focused employees — behind a tried-and-true public health strategy of testing anyone in the county with symptoms, isolating them if they test positive for COVID-19 and tracking down as many of their recent contacts as possible.
“What we are trying to do is allow people to go back to social and economic recovery,” Koenemann said.
Gabe Muething, Aspen Ambulance director and one of the commanders, along with Koenemann, of the team managing the local response to the virus, agreed.
“We realize it’s tough for people,” Muething said. “But what we would ask is hang in there. We will gradually bring the light up and have full light in the end.”
The plan — known as a “box it in” strategy — relies on tracking down and monitoring each symptomatic case of COVID-19 while gradually relaxing the public health orders. The idea is to ease the restrictions bit by bit, which should inevitably lead to spikes in COVID-19 cases, then assess each easing’s impact on the health care system, Koenemann and Muething said.
If the impact is manageable, the restrictions can continue to be gradually lifted. If the impact is not manageable and Aspen Valley Hospital is overwhelmed, the restrictions can be clamped down again, they said.
“Ideally we want to ease out of our public health orders so we don’t have to tighten up again,” Koenemann said.
The first easing of Pitkin County’s stay-at-home public health order started Thursday, when construction companies began submitting site plans to reopen, and bicycle shops and office supply stores were allowed to return to business.
Public health officials will wait about two weeks to assess the impacts of that first easing of restrictions on the health care system before making any more decisions concerning the restrictions, Koenemann said.
“Fourteen days would give us some good data around (the impacts),” she said.
The state of Colorado’s stay-at-home health order expires Sunday, when it will morph into what Gov. Jared Polis has called a less restrictive “safer-at-home order.” Pitkin County’s stay-at-home public health order — which supersedes the state’s — doesn’t expire until Thursday.
The Pitkin County Board of Health is scheduled to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday to determine the future of the county order, so the exact parameters of post-April 30 life remain hazy.
But provided AVH can handle whatever happens because of this first easing of restrictions, the next change in the order in about two weeks would likely include increasing maximum group size from five to 10, looking at opening child care facilities with guidance from public health and developing a checklist for businesses, offices and other gathering places, Koenemann said.
That checklist will include items such as symptom screening, frequent hand-washing and use of face masks, among other protocols, that is likely to be posted, used and adhered to until a vaccine is discovered, she said. Most estimates say a vaccine is 12 to 18 months down the road.
“This is for the long game,” Koenemann said. “(The checklist) is gonna be there for a while.”
It’s unclear how the checklist would pertain to customers at businesses, offices or, eventually, restaurants, she said.
Provided health care impacts in the upper Roaring Fork Valley remain manageable throughout those first two phases easing restrictions, officials might begin to consider opening restaurants and bars in Aspen and Pitkin County during the third phase, Koenemann said.
If the precedent of waiting 14 days for the impact of each phase to become clear is adhered to, that would put restaurant consideration around June 1.
The specifics of what a COVID-19-impacted restaurant might look like remain unclear, though there will be limitations, she said. That will at least include removing some tables, having a chair between patrons seated at bars and other seating restrictions, Koenemann said.
Beyond that, Koenemann said she hasn’t received guidance yet on virus-related restaurant protocols and whether they might include temperature checks for guests at the door as California Gov. Gavin Newsom has suggested.
Gyms will probably fall into the same category and timeframe as restaurants, Koenemann said.
Another major consideration is lodging.
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman hit the nail on the head when he noted in a Board of Health meeting a week ago that once officials allow hotels, lodges and short-term rentals to resume, “it means we’re open for business.”
Koenemann said an influx of visitors from all over the country and the world is bound to increase spread of the virus. She also said that mountain counties with rural, resort communities, including Eagle, Gunnison and others, have agreed in principle to restrict lodging longer than more populated areas.
“My recommendation to the Board of Health is that we continue to restrict lodging for a bit longer than (cities),” Koenemann said.
Once lodging is allowed to reopen, she said it would be reasonable to assume restrictions like a maximum of 50% occupancy.
Also, while some Colorado counties have reserved recreational areas inside those counties, including U.S. Forest Service land, solely for county residents, Pitkin County has no plans to do so.
“There should not be visitors here anyway,” Koenemann said.
Both Polis’ safer-at-home order and Pitkin County’s stay-at-home order envision citizens remaining at home or within a few miles of home to recreate, said Bill Linn, spokesman for the team managing the local virus outbreak.
Finally there’s the question of large cultural, musical or athletic events that are a staple of summer in Aspen.
Once the Board of Health allows groups of 10 to congregate, officials will wait four-to-eight weeks, analyze virus-related data and next increase group size to between 25 and 50, she said. The plan would be to wait another four-to-eight weeks after that, again look at the data and increase group size to 250 at that point if the situation merits, she said.
Koenemann, Muething and other public officials have praised Aspen and Pitkin County residents for adhering to the restrictive health orders that allowed them to get a handle on COVID-19 in the upper Roaring Fork Valley. Residents’ high level of cooperation was verified by cellphone data gathered by Google, officials have said.
The first easing of restrictions is the beginning of a long road, she said.
“These are a couple lights in the tunnel,” Koenemann said during a COVID-19 community meeting last week outlining the lesser restrictions and new strategy. “We can’t predict the light at the end (yet).”
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