Eagle County request would aid restaurants and lodges in Basalt and El Jebel | AspenTimes.com
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Eagle County request would aid restaurants and lodges in Basalt and El Jebel

A customer picks up takeout from El Korita in Willits Town Center on Thursday, May 21, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

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Eagle County has prepared a COVID-19 Business Toolkit to help businesses navigate the potential easing of restrictions due to the coronavirus. It can be found at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1sDaPhG_6Kv95RqHbYWFzPgEdjQez7TByLejibQ2kPEQ/preview

Basalt and El Jebel restaurants and lodges will be able to open to limited occupancy Monday if Eagle County persuades the governor’s office to grant the county a variance to a state public health order.

The county submitted its request to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on May 11 but hasn’t received a response yet. However, a panel of county officials met with the media Thursday to discuss its plan, indicating a level of confidence that change is forthcoming.

Eagle County’s new plan, called the Blue Phase, would allow gatherings of up to 50 people as long as 6-foot distancing is followed between non-household members. Multiple groups of 50 would be allowed in parks and outdoor gathering spaces if physically separated by at least 20 feet.

“The intention is to stress test this a little bit in an environment that looks nothing like our ski season traffic but starts to get our businesses understanding how to operate in this new normal,” said Birch Barron, Eagle County’s emergency manager.

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The Blue Phase would allow dine-in service at restaurants and bars with 50% capacity at indoor spaces and unlimited seating outdoors with 6 feet of social distancing between different parties.

“Traditional lodging” could operate at 50% capacity under Eagle County’s proposal.

Eagle County officials said Thursday they feel easing the restrictions is an important economic and social step as well as an important test to see how close to normal conditions can be for ski season.

“This is that opportunity for our local residents and local business owners to start to get comfortable and really confident in maintaining the social distancing requirements,” said Eagle County Public Health and Environment Director Heath Harmon.

Commissioner Jeanne McQueeney said local residents, business owners and employees can also set an example for visitors by wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.

“I actually believe they will see this is how you behave,” she said.

Pitkin County also is looking at easing restrictions Wednesday, and it includes groups up to 50, but the restaurant requirements are based on social-distancing rules, not on a restaurant’s percentage of capacity.

That puts Basalt in a potentially awkward position. Most restaurants and all lodges in the town are located in Eagle County. However, a handful of restaurants are in Pitkin County, so their opening could lag the rest of the businesses by a couple of days and a few rule changes.

Harmon acknowledged that coordinating rules in Basalt is “a little challenging.” Eagle and Pitkin county officials are “aligned on the directions we are taking even if the days are off by one or two here and there,” he said.

The town of Basalt has the ability to adopt the tougher of the regulations between Eagle and Pitkin counties. Basalt stuck with Eagle County’s rules when it opened restaurants for take-out service prior to Pitkin County taking that step.

Town Manager Ryan Mahoney could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon on Basalt’s position on Eagle County’s request to ease restrictions.

The county officials were upfront Thursday about risks that come with eased restrictions.

“Blue Phase scares me, but so does not moving into Blue Phase,” Barron said. He later added, “I think the things that scare me about Blue Phase, it’s just the increased number of social contacts, to be perfectly honest. We know that nothing has zero risk.”

He noted that going to the grocery store, big box retailers, a place of worship or any place with gatherings carries a risk.

“We’ve accepted a level of risk because we know people need to eat and so that risk goes along with it,” Barron said.

The public should not interpret Eagle County’s efforts to ease restrictions as a message that conditions are safe from the spread of the coronavirus, Harmon said.

“Let’s face it, the virus is here in our community. It’s going to be here for a while,” he said. “We’re not going to have a vaccine for a while. We certainly can’t live as we have been living for the next 12 to 18 months until that vaccine shows up.

“It’s certainly not going to be a risk-free zone but at the same time we do know a bit more about this virus now than we knew back in March, we do understand how we can actually protect ourselves.”

Whenever restrictions ease, county officials will watch local disease trends, the number of new cases, the percent of tests that come back positive, how capacity of the health care system is being affected and national trends, since visitors will be arriving from other areas.

If the county receives the state variance, it will rely on businesses and residents to comply with the new conditions.

“It starts with trust and education but if there are ongoing violations of the public health order, local law enforcement throughout our county are willing to respond and assist with that enforcement,” Harmon said. “Even when they come out to the scene, they’re going to be focused first and foremost on that education piece then they can look at other enforcement tools they might have.”

Barron said if people see violations of social distancing and restrictions on gatherings, they should call the non-emergency numbers of the dispatch centers in the Eagle and Roaring Fork Valleys.

“That non-emergency line has received hundreds of calls for violations of the public health order and they’ve dispatched law enforcement to investigate those calls,” Barron said. “The first priority is education, but they have issued citations in several cases.”

scondon@aspentimes.com


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