Delta on the mind of local leaders as winter looms

People walk through downtown Aspen in the mandatory mask zone on Tuesday, April 13, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Local business, civic and public health leaders intent on avoiding what happened last ski season with COVID-19 restrictions already are in talks about how to prevent a repeat performance.

On Friday, representatives of several entities that are the face of the business and service community — Aspen Skiing Co., Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport and Roaring Fork Transportation Authority among them — restarted conversations about winter planning as it relates to COVID-19.

“A lot of the conversation that we had was around how can we, as leaders of the community, be a model for mask-wearing,” said Kara Silbernagel, Pitkin County’s projects and policy manager. “People don’t want to go back to these enforcement phases.”

The discussion came as the delta variant’s aggression has resulted in hospitalizations returning to levels not seen since the winter. States in the South are feeling it the worst.

As of 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID data tracker identified Pitkin County as high risk for community transmission. Under the CDC’s current guidelines, that means people in Pitkin County — vaccinated or not — should wear face coverings in public indoor settings.

The concerns about the delta variant prompted local leaders to scramble last week to get the winter-planning groups back together. The town of Basalt and Snowmass Village were represented, as well as Snowmass Tourism. Two past regulars, Aspen Valley Hospital and the city of Aspen, couldn’t make the meeting because it was announced on short notice.

The parties convened regularly for last winter’s planning meetings when case-counts were high. They backed off the sessions in the spring when the case counts dropped. As well, business-hampering yet purportedly case-curbing health regulations — like limited restaurant capacities and crowd gatherings, and social-distancing requirements — were either removed or softened in the spring. In April, Aspen City Council rescinded its mask ordinance and business curfews, while the state retired the color-coded COVID-19 dial used to dictate county health regulations.

Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, was part of last winter’s planning meetings and Friday’s as well. The consensus among attendees last week, Braun and Silbernagel said, was to work on replacing public health mandates with their own behavior showing they continue to take the pandemic seriously.

The one exception that could lead to state-mandated health orders would be if hospitalization capacities were threatened at local and regional hospitals. AVH currently is operating at comfortable margins, according to the county.

“The group centered on a conversation around modeling group behavior,” said Braun, noting that ACRA employees must step in line with recommendations made by the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That means all ACRA employees are required to wear masks while working indoors. The same is now happening with the Pitkin County government, said Silbernagel.

It’s currently up to businesses to establish their practices related to the coronavirus. Some retailers require their employees to wear face-coverings, while others do not.

“We want to be a model for good behavior,” Braun said. “We are getting unvaccinated people here and there are breakthrough cases (when a vaccinated person catches the virus) with front-line employees, so it’s important for us to acknowledge this and do things to protect employees.”

Skico also is on board. Last week it began to require employees to wear face-coverings while working inside.

“Yes, with recent infection rates and the following CDC guidelines we went back to masks in indoor workspaces last Thursday 8/12,” said Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications, in an email.

This fall is actually ACRA’s summer, at least when it comes to one of town’s biggest events of the year. The Food & Wine Classic, which was Aspen’s annual yet informal kickoff to the summer in previous Junes (except last year when it was canceled), was moved this year to Sept. 10-12.

Yet there’s also the pandemic to tend to.

“I think it’s important as we prepare for the winter, and as we start to move back indoors, the last thing we want is our restaurants to be closed, so if we can voluntarily move in the right direction,” said Braun.

Silbernagel said, “It’s about us being a leader in the community and modeling what it takes to get ahead and have a successful winter.”

Silbernagel said she doesn’t see the return of the county health board’s Traveler Responsibility Code and the accompanying affidavit that was required of visitors to submit with local lodge and hotels.

County case numbers have been trending down of late. Pitkin County recorded 18 positive cases for COVID-19 on Monday, the lowest number in the past 14 days, according to county figures. The 37 cases on Aug. 3 marked the highest count during that period.

The county’s incidence rate — the number of cases per 100,000 residents over seven days — stood at 101.4 on Monday, also the lowest over two weeks. An incidence rate of at least 100 puts the county at high risk, under CDC guidelines. If that number is between 55 and 99, the county is at substantial risk but masks should still be worn indoors, per CDC’s updated mask guidelines.

Pitkin County, however, even as Aspen and Snowmass Village are enjoying record-setting months for visitor occupancy, hasn’t seen an outbreak like in early January, which was averaging nearly 52 cases a day.

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