Eagle County, Basalt officials hope to avoid ‘high risk’ COVID designation as ski season looms
Officials with Eagle County and Basalt are frustrated that people’s personal choices during the COVID pandemic could have dire economic consequences for ski season.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment notified Eagle County on Monday that it must reduce COVID-19 cases over the next two weeks to avoid tougher capacity restrictions on gatherings.
Eagle County, which includes El Jebel and part of Basalt, is currently in the state’s yellow level, which signifies “concern” over the incidence rate. If numbers stay at recent levels, the state said it will move the county to orange or “high risk.”
That would have implications for everything from school procedures to restaurant and retail store capacities.
Schools would be urged to return to remote or hybrid classes with limited in-person gatherings. Churches would be limited to 25% of capacity or 50 people for indoor worship. Restaurants would be restricted to 25% capacity or 50 people indoors, whichever is less. Bars would be closed. Retail shops would be restricted to 25% capacity.
“Yeah, that’s worrisome,” Basalt Mayor Bill Kane said. “If we’re at 25 percent, that’s going to be a big deal.”
Public health officials warned for months that following safe practices would be essential to preventing the spread of the new coronavirus as the weather turned cold and people spent more time indoors. The concern was the COVID cases would climb when the snow flies and temperatures plummet.
“We knew this was going to happen but it’s happening sooner than we expected,” Kane said.
Eagle County government reported Tuesday that the COVID incidence rate has climbed to 284 cases per 100,000 population from 222 per 100,000 on Oct. 29. The same trend is emerging regionally.
Summit County was moved to the orange level by the state. COVID cases are on the rise in Pitkin County. Aspen Valley Hospital opened a testing site in Basalt on Wednesday; it will be open Wednesday to Friday weekly and “ramping up to five days a week in the very near future,” acccording to a news release from Pitkin County.
Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said he and the municipal managers in the cities and towns in the county discussed the trend in a teleconference this week.
“That is the talk of the town,” he said.
They are frustrated because evidence tracked by the public health department indicates the majority of cases stem from contact during private gatherings among family, friends and coworkers rather than incidental contact at businesses, schools and churches. Nevertheless, gatherings of all types will face restrictions if the numbers aren’t reduced.
The managers are planning to write an open letter to their constituencies urging more careful practices — social distancing and masks among them — and laying out the potential consequences.
“It’s really a plea. We don’t want people to lose their jobs,” Shroll said.
In Colorado, the increasing number of COVID cases couldn’t come at a worst time with ski areas opening later this month. Keystone is scheduled to open Friday, one of the first large resorts that depend on destination visitors.
“This is becoming super real,” Shroll said of the timing and stakes.
The good news, he said, is Eagle County and regional residents proved before that they can change behavior to reduce COVID numbers. They did it after a spike in July. Circumstances are different now.
“The spike is in the middle of mud season,” Shroll said. “We don’t have any tourists here. This is us.”
Eagle County is ramping up efforts to provide people about the number of cases, what they can do to ease the spread and how to get tested. The county launched a comprehensive, bilingual COVID-19 website on Tuesday at http://www.eaglecountycovid.org.
“We can’t lighten up on the messaging,” Shroll said.
Some business owners are well aware of Eagle County’s rising COVID cases.
Robin Humble, co-owner of Free Range Kitchen, a Basalt restaurant, said Thursday she knows Eagle County is at risk of getting assigned the orange level and the restrictions that come with it.
“The trends are looking worse than they’ve ever been,” she said.
Like many business owners, she and her husband were “panicked” when they were forced to close during the stay-at-home order that started in March. Summer was surprisingly good for many restaurants and retail shops in the Roaring Fork Valley, a trend experienced in resort areas throughout the country.
Humble said the support was amazing as well as humbling.
“We may never see those numbers again, ironically,” she said of the pandemic summer.
They were braced for a slowdown when temperatures cooled and diners couldn’t eat outside. However, tighter restrictions or another closure order would be tough to handle.
“If it happens in the middle of the (winter) or high season, it will be remarkable, the effects,” she said.
The current restrictions allow 50% capacity indoors. To try to boost business, Free Range Kitchen rented two igloos — small dome structures that were erected on the patio. They seat as many as eight people and create a unique dining experience.
There will be a fee to cover the cost of rental, and patrons booking the igloos must meet a threshold price for food and drink. It’s simply another tool to try to survive the winter and hopefully move on to another successful summer, Humble said.
Basalt Town Manager Ryan Mahoney said the open letter to constituents will appeal to people to make the personal sacrifices necessary to keep businesses and schools open this winter. A big concern is losing local control and flexibility. To help drive that message, business owners and community members outside of government will be engaged to help spread the word.
“I think it does get old hearing from government, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that,’” Mahoney said.