Coronavirus outbreak at St. Regis hobbles intern program
More than 20 interns test positive for COVID-19, likely because of orientation events, county official says
An outbreak of COVID-19 cases among aspiring hospitality workers at the St. Regis Aspen Resort has temporarily dismantled the hotel’s winter internship program.
As of approximately 6:20 p.m. Wednesday, 22 St. Regis interns had tested positive for the virus and were in isolation, as well as another three who were presumptive positive, according to Pitkin County health officials. All told, an estimated 60 interns have been in either quarantine or isolation; some are no longer in quarantine, said Kurt Dahl, Pitkin County environmental health manager.
“We’ve got an outbreak that we’re working on at the hotel, and it appears that most of the impact is on the interns,” Dahl said Wednesday night.
That outbreak is likely due to intern training held at the Regis, Dahl said.
From Nov. 16-19, some 60-plus interns, as well as St. Regis staff, gathered in the hotel’s ballroom for orientation, said intern Prophecy Lorreign, who currently is in quarantine.
The ballroom covers 9,146 square feet and can hold up to 1,000 people, according to online booking sites.
Interns and staff wore masks and kept their social distance, she recalled.
The hotel remains open; there are no guest-capacity restrictions on lodges in Pitkin County or elsewhere in Colorado. The county’s current Orange Plus phase does apply to the lodges’ restaurants, which are restricted to 25% dine-in capacity, and gyms, which are limited to 10%, for instance.
“We are communicating directly with Pitkin County Health Department regarding employees who have tested positive for COVID-19,” said St. Regis General Manager Heather Steenge-Hart in a statement given to The Aspen Times. “While it is unclear at this time if the source of the exposure is located within the hotel, we are cooperating fully with the health authorities’ investigation, and are following their guidance.
“In addition, we continue to undertake enhanced cleaning protocols and operational steps within the hotel to enhance safety. The well-being of our guests and employees is always of utmost priority.”
Additional light is shed on how the hotel is addressing the situation in a notice sent to interns last week by St. Regis management.
“Good morning, by this time you should have been contacted by me, your manager, or Pitkin County,” the notice said. “As you are aware, when I am informed of a positive COVID diagnosis, we immediately stop what we are doing and conduct an investigation. Contract tracing then takes place. In some situations, the Aspen Pitkin Board of Health may decide to extend an investigation and take a different stance in quarantining individuals.
“The goal with Aspen, Pitkin and St. Regis Aspen is to lookout for the safety and well-being of our hosts and guests.”
Dahl said he did not believe that any guests of the five-star luxury hotel, located on the west side of Aspen Mountain, were exposed.
County health officials are investigating the matter and are in the process of notifying the state, Dahl said.
Meanwhile, those participating in the luxury internship program put on by Marriott, which owns the St. Regis Hotels & Resorts brand, are spread throughout the valley.
That includes Lorreign, who flew cross-country from the East Coast to participate in the program, which is providing interns bus passes for work, ski passes and other perks.
She is living with 17 other interns in a nine-bedroom home outside of Aspen.
“I’ve been holed in my room, not socializing,” she said.
Still, “It’s hard to quarantine and keep your distance when you share a house with so many people,” she added.
Lorreign said at least three interns on her house’s floor have COVID-19. Lorreign, who said she was initially exposed Nov. 18, said she is getting tested again Thursday.
Majoring in hospitality at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, Lorreign came to Aspen on Nov. 13 to participate in the internship program.
“Thanksgiving Day is when this blew up,” Lorreign said. “We were all at work and I got pulled off the floor. I was in the middle of serving tables and my manager said I have to go home and quarantine.”
Lorreign said she was tested Nov. 20. It came back negative on Nov. 27 — the day after Thanksgiving.
On Saturday, Pitkin County reported 21 positive cases returned from the lab, one of the biggest totals recorded in a single day since the pandemic broke in March.
“It’s one of the highest, if not the highest,” Dahl said.
Pitkin County had another 20 positive cases reported Wednesday, Dahl said, noting at the time — approximately 6:30 p.m. — that the day was not over yet.
Neither figure can’t be pinned exclusively on the St. Regis group, he said, explaining the uptick in local cases is coming from elsewhere also.
“They were within their protocols,” Dahl said of the St. Regis operation, but said the county is “giving them advice about thinking about people who live together in households.”
The parent of an intern, who asked not to be identified, said the student is living with another intern at an area lodge provided by the Regis. They were both under quarantine Wednesday, the parent said. It’s a troubling situation, the parent said, given the risks involved.
Lorreign said she plans to leave the intern program to return home as soon as she can. She said she gave up her job and broke a lease on an apartment to be an intern in Aspen this winter.
“It’s been very difficult,” she said. “It has been very challenging.”
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The more the incidence rate of COVID-19 cases lowers in Pitkin County, the faster businesses will be able participate in a state program that eases public health restrictions.