Colorado governor extends ski resort ban, other social-distancing measures

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks during a news conference to outline the state's efforts to fend off the spread of coronavirus Monday, March 16, 2020, in Denver.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

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Gov. Jared Polis extended on Wednesday night the ski resort closures in Colorado to April 6 and schools to April 17, and Pitkin County Public Health officials added social-distancing measures that include prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people as the COVID-19 virus cases increase throughout the state.

“COVID-19 has spread throughout many mountain communities where ski resorts are located and this is a necessary step to help slow the spread of the virus,” the Governor said in a news release Wednesday evening.

The public health orders issued by Polis and Pitkin County extend to April 17 and include the closures of public schools and the continuation of shuttered restaurants and bars.

“This update expands our original order to be aligned with the guidance from the governor’s office,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann stated Wednesday in a press release. “We will continue to monitor and evaluate needs for extending the timeline and service coverage.”

The order is effective immediately, and people who fail to comply with the local public health order face up to a $5,000 fine and as much as 18 months in jail.

Polis said during a news conference Wednesday morning that the only way to slow the COVID-19 spread is for people to take personal responsibility in social distancing themselves from others.

“Don’t be dumb here and think you’re getting away with something just because the cops aren’t able to shut you down,” Polis said. “You’re actually being really dumb if that’s what you’re doing because you’re jeopardizing the lives of everybody who’s attending that event … your very friends that you care about, so be thoughtful about this social distancing.”

Under Pitkin County’s order, an “event” is a gathering for business, social or recreational activities, or a location that allows for such activities which take place either indoors or outdoors, including, but not limited to “community, civic, public, leisure, social, or sporting events, parades, concerts, festivals, assemblies, places of worship, weddings, birthday parties, block parties, playgrounds, conventions, fundraisers, and similar activities or locations.”

“The purpose of this order is to limit most activities to 10 or fewer people to achieve adequate social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community,” reads a statement from the Pitkin County Health Department and the local incident command team. “This order should not be construed to prohibit business or retail operations, but such activities may be subject to the limits on number of attendees and risk mitigation measures.”

Recognizing the need for essential public services, Koenemann said the orders are not directed at certain services in the community. 

Public transit, the airport, gas stations, medical services and hospitals, veterinarians, dental offices, law enforcement, fire services, emergency medical services, banks, grocery and convenience stores and pharmacies are all allowed and encouraged to remain open as long as they are following the public health order guidelines for people staying six feet apart from one another.

General retail stores and businesses are allowed to remain open if they meet the requirements on mitigation risk, according to Pitkin County’s public health order.

Restaurants and bars throughout the state will remain closed until April 17, but can offer take-out food, as long as social distancing of six feet is enforced. 

Up to five people can be in a restaurant at one time to pick up food, as long as they are six feet apart.

Also exempt from the public health orders are local, state and federal courts, waste removal services, child care facilities, post offices, shipping centers; and gatherings of employees of public utilities, utility service providers, as well as at residential or commercial construction sites.

Auto repair service centers, auto parts stores, hardware stores, building supply stores, pet food stores, hotels, motels, employee housing, room service in hotels, health care facilities, residential care facilities, congregate care facilities, adult and juvenile justice facilities, crisis shelters or similar institutions are all allowed to remain open.

Last week, the Governor issued an executive order suspending ski area operations until March 22. Aspen Skiing Co. said this week it would not reopen Buttermilk but was hoping to reopen before the scheduled April 19 season closing.

Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle said Wednesday night that the company will do what it can to maintain the ability to open later in April if circumstances allow.

He couldn’t immediately quantify the economic loss to the company or to its employees.

“It’s certainly going to be substantial,” Hanle said in an email. “Our biggest concern is the impact on our employees and the community.”

Scores of area residents applied Wednesday for assistance from Pitkin County after $500,000 was made available the day before for those with COVID-19-related economic hardships.

As of 5 p.m. Wednesday, 270 Pitkin County residents had submitted forms asking for assistance, mainly for food and housing expenses, said Nan Sundeen, the county’s health and human services director.

“People need help right now,” she said. “And we’re going to be able to get some people some help right now.”

Pitkin County commissioners voted Tuesday to tap a $150,000 emergency fund, then added $350,000 more to it from the general fund to help residents who have lost jobs or economic lifelines as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. The money is meant as a bridge until expected funds from the state and federal governments begin flowing into the area, officials have said.

Forms to apply for the emergency assistance can be found on Pitkin County’s website by clicking on the “Novel Coronavirus” box at the top of the page, then clicking on “Essential Human Services.” 

The “Aspen to Parachute COVID Relief Programs” are listed on that page, including the emergency assistance forms.

Sundeen said county officials will begin calling applicants Thursday and interviewing them further about their needs. They are trying to expedite the process and get the money flowing as quickly as possible, she said.

“We have a very generous community and we’ll sort it out,” Sundeen said. “Our plan is to take it one month at a time.”

She said she’s picking up on a lot of fear and anxiety from community members, especially from people with seasonal jobs who might not have stashed away a lot of money.

“I think the anxiety is high,” Sundeen said. “Things are changing every day, every hour. I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s odd and weird.

“It’s really a test of our strength as a community — our strength of character.”

Polis earlier on Wednesday noted mountain communities are hotspots, and some of the draconian measures already taken by county health departments in those areas, like Summit County, which has shut down all non-essential businesses.

“We’re going to take the steps we need to avoid catastrophic loss of life,” Polis said Wednesday morning, adding that a “shelter in place” order has impacts his office is considering. “We have to make sure that we have it in a way where there’s compliance, where there’s social order, where people can support themselves.”

When asked how a measure like that would be enforced, Polis said it’s up to the people of Colorado to do the right thing.

“I want to be clear that the responsibility is on the people at the end of the day,” he said. “There’s not really the ability to police. If you’re stupid and you have 30 or 40 or 80 people at your home, I mean, maybe the neighbors will complain and maybe the police will come out, but please don’t be stupid, your local law enforcement is not going to be everywhere.

“So be smart here, socialize, but socialize virtually on FaceTime, call your friends on conference calls, use the online applications that allow for groups of people to talk,” he said.

Hanle on Wednesday night emphasized to the public to not let the hype and misinformation permeate what has become one of the worst crises in U.S. history.

“We will all need to come together and do all we can to support each other at this time,” he wrote in an email. “We would ask that everyone please pay attention to the communicationsfrom those best informed on this ongoing crisis. 

“It is not the time to be amplifying and sharing unsubstantiated news through social media,” he continued. “This does more harm than good. Please look to official channels through the Pitkin County health agency pages for factual updates and information.”

Reporter Jason Auslander contributed to this report.

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