County, state move toward social distancing strategies to mitigate COVID-19 spread |

County, state move toward social distancing strategies to mitigate COVID-19 spread

A sign hangs in the window of the Wheeler Opera House announcing closure through March 31 due to coronavirus on Friday.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Under the Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin tri-county public health order, events with more than 50 people are prohibited unless measures are taken by event organizers to minimize risk, according to a Thursday evening press release. The definition of event does not apply to places of employment, restaurants, schools or skiing, the release said.

Events or gatherings with fewer than 50 people are recommended to take the following steps to mitigate risks:

-Social distancing recommendations include limiting contact of people within six feet of each other

-Older adults and individuals with underlying medical conditions that are at increased risk of serious COVID-19 are encouraged not to attend (including employees)

-Potential screenings for COVID-19 symptoms each day and exclusion from the gathering if symptomatic

-Proper hand hygiene and sanitation measures must be readily available

-Environmental cleaning guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are followed

County public health officials will not actively search for violations, but if they receive reports of events contrary to the order, education and guidance will be provided.

During a news briefing Thursday afternoon, Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said she views the response to COVID-19 and efforts around mitigating its spread locally as a three-pronged approach:

1: Screen and test individuals who may be at risk for COVID-19 and ensure they are getting proper care in our community.

2: Trace the “presumptively positive” cases to ensure public health and epidemiology officials understand who has interacted with whom, which also includes the cases of quarantine and isolation.

3: Move to implement social distancing processes and practices.

According to Koenemann, this third prong hasn’t been publicly discussed much yet but the county is moving from a containment response of COVID-19 to a community mitigation response via strategies like social distancing as more presumptive positive cases are confirmed.

“We really want to be aggressive in our social distancing practices,” Koenemann said of Pitkin County, Eagle County, Garfield County and Summit County specifically.

Late Thursday night, Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield public health officials put more aggressive social distancing practices into place, issuing a public health order that goes into effect immediately, according to a news release.

The tri-county order prohibits events with more than 50 people, defining an event as “a gathering for business, social or recreational activities,” including things such as concerts, festivals, assemblies, conventions, sporting events and fundraisers.

An event does not include restaurants, as long as eateries adhere to social distancing requirements, or activities that “are primarily individual or occur in small groups or in non-congregate settings,” like places of employment and skiing. It also doesn’t apply to schools, which the three counties are not recommending close as of Thursday evening.

“These actions are the most available and effective tools to help slow the spread of the virus in our community,” the news release states. “By slowing the spread, we have a chance to protect our family, friends and neighbors who are at risk for severe illness.”

Social distancing is described by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment as a “recommended limitation of physical contact” with other people. It can be applied voluntarily by individuals or organizations, or implemented formally during a public health emergency by a specific community or region.

The CDPHE explains that social distancing can be as simple as maintaining a distance of 6 feet away from other people and not shaking hands, or more restrictive such as staying home and avoiding public spaces.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes social distancing as a potential mitigation activity that can be implemented in various public settings when there is a minimal to moderate level of community transmission or impact of COVID-19, listing different social distancing measures for different settings.

Measures generally include reducing large gatherings and internal and external people-to-people mixing or interactions, and putting short-term closures in place as needed, the CDC website says.

In Pitkin County, Koenemann said public health officials are prioritizing protection of individuals at higher risk of severe or deadly cases of COVID-19, including people 60 and older and with pre-existing or chronic health conditions; and of first responders and health care workers, as they are crucial to the mitigation of and response to COVID-19.

To help protect these people and because community spread “is the next step,” Koenemann said the county is moving toward promoting social distancing and more widespread preventative guidelines instead of tracking specifics and links to individual “presumptively positive” COVID-19 cases.

“I don’t think we want to forget that everybody here, everybody in our community, can be empowered to take their own actions, and so that includes all the basics and things we’ve talked about as far as hand washing, staying home when you’re sick and what organizations can do to support their workers,” Koenemann said.

“I think we just want to be acknowledging that this is a community response at this point and everybody has a role to play from the individual to the organization to public health to first responders. I really want to get that message clear that we’re all in this together right now.”

The public health order issued Thursday night is a result of this more united approach to preventing spread of the novel coronavirus, aiming to protect the vulnerable, limit the “cascading impacts on critical services” if large numbers of employees become ill, and ultimately save lives, according to the issued news release. The order will be in effect until April 8.

Jill Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, expressed similar thoughts Thursday about the evolution of the state’s response to the spread of COVID-19, stating that it also is moving toward more general community mitigation.

Ryan said the CDPHE is asking the most vulnerable populations not to attend social gatherings, and that the state is focused on slowing the spread through strategies like social distancing to both avoid social disruption and keep Colorado medical systems from being overwhelmed with a high number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations all at once.

“We don’t want everybody to be sick at once. … That’s where the social distancing measures that we’re starting to see can be really effective,” Ryan said Thursday. “As we start to see spread of this disease increase exponentially across the state there will be a point where we’re not going to be able to rely on testing, people are just going to have to stay home when they’re sick.”

A multitude of social distancing measures have already voluntarily been put in place by various local organizations and groups set to host events in the Aspen area, starting last week with the cancellation of the National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic.

As of Thursday afternoon, Pitkin County Senior Services temporarily suspended all group operations; Aspen Skiing Co. announced it will cancel events that would bring large gatherings and look to remove some seating in its restaurants to increase social spacing; and Aspen-based District Judge Chris Seldin issued a notice urging counsel and their clients to avoid coming to the Pitkin County Courthouse, directing lawyers for defendants with cases set Monday morning who expect to ask for a continuance to do so by written motion beforehand. A full list of local cancellations can be found at

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