“Faces of the Pandemic”: Leading under pressure during an unprecedented year
Aspen Times year-end series highlights those who served the community in 2020
This is that time of the year when the media reflects on the past 51 or 52 weeks through various presentations — top 10 stories of the year, top news makers of the year, the biggest surprises of the year, the biggest disappointments, and so on.
Yet in 2020, there’s little disputing — presidential election and social-justice causes not withstanding — that the pandemic had the greatest impact on our daily lives than anything else.
People lost jobs. People struggled financially, socially and personally. People got sick. Businesses shuttered and failed. Schools closed. Ski areas closed. Events and festivals were canceled.
But life forged on and people came together.
In Pitkin County, the business, education, health care, recreation and tourism sectors had to regularly collaborate and coordinate with government. Oftentimes, leaders took unpopular positions, convinced the community’s health and greater good were at stake if they did not. Sometimes they admitted they just did not have an answer to the most pressing question of the day. Like the rest of the public, they also were learning as they went along.
So rather than recapping the biggest stories in Aspen and the mid to upper Roaring Fork Valley in 2020, this year The Aspen Times is casting the spotlight on the people who rose to the occasion during a time that tested our resolve and tried our patience.
A year-end series by The Aspen Times taking a look at the people behind the masks who helped our community get through 2020. To read more profiles, go to aspentimes.com/faces-of-the-pandemic
Our series — “Faces of the Pandemic” — debuts Sunday with a focus on the top-level people whose decisions were critical to the health and well-being of the community, the survival of businesses during the pandemic, the education of youth, and the operation of a resort town dependent on visitors.
Beginning Monday and running through Jan. 6, we will profile 10 individuals on the ground who did what was needed and necessary to keep Aspen and the rest of Pitkin County going during this curve-ball of a year.
From nurses to bus drivers, contact tracers to teachers, you could do a yearlong series profiling these kinds of people. But at the very least these stories will shine the light on the hard and selfless work done by individuals committed to their community.
Superintendent, Aspen School District
Stepping into the superintendent’s role July 1, David Baugh had no time for a honeymoon phase with the Aspen School District.
“Starting any new job is hard,” Baugh said last week. “But starting a job in a global pandemic adds a whole layer of complexity to it.”
Baugh came to the 1,800-student Aspen district from a Philadelphia-area district of 5,800 students. While their differences are plenty, from demographics to enrollment size, Baugh said any well-run district demands a human touch.
“Our work is built around relationships and getting to know people,” he said.
Yet the pandemic didn’t lay the best groundwork for building relationships. Many face-to-faces were over a screen and not in person. The new superintendent, working with a new assistant superintendent, Tharyn Mulberry, had to get to know people quickly and lead them as well.
“It’s much harder to get to know somebody over a Zoom call than to sit around the table over a cup of coffee,” Baugh said.
Additionally, Baugh and his team had to get well acquainted with public health and how it would safely mix with educating the kids. Terms never considered were thrust into the daily vernacular — “cohort,” “pod,” “Covid dial,””distance learning,” “remote learning,” “hybrid schedule,” “class hangout,” “class meet,” for instance.
The public pressure was unrelenting, as well.
There had been no in-person learning, save the Aspen Community School’s successful approach, since public schools closed in March.
By the fall, parents were getting anxious to get their kids back into class as their children regressed. As well, parents were tasked with their own jobs while trying to keep their kids on the academic track that was remote learning.,
Yet many teachers, including the Aspen Education Association, were concerned about returning to class given the unknowns of the pandemic and worries over the health of the staff and student body. Remote learning was not ideal, they said, but they were giving it their all. For parent-teachers, remote learning has been a double-whammy — teaching kids while managing their own.
“One of the hardest things is, there is no consensus,” Baugh said. “I’ve got parents who want us wide open and I’ve got parents who want all remote. I’ve got teachers who want it wide open, in-person; and I’ve got other teachers who want it remote.”
The district began free COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic students and staff in November, a major step in building confidence among kids, employees and parents about the state of the district’s health. There have been disruptions when positive cases emerge — some cohorts and classes have had to return to online learning, bus drivers and staff have been quarantined, last-minute closures have surfaced.
Currently the preschool, elementary and fifth- and sixth-graders are scheduled to continue class in-person after the holiday break, while the middle school’s seventh- and eighth-graders, as well as the entire high school, continue their instruction online.
The rollout of a vaccine also brings hope for a better 2021, Baugh said, adding he is encouraged that it will be available to students and staff by the first or second week of July.
“Things have changed on a monthly, if not weekly basis since March 13,” he said. “I’m guardedly optimistic that we’ll be fully open. I believe 100% that we’ll be fully open in 2021.”
— Rick Carroll
President, Aspen Chamber Resort Association
(in her own words)
For me, this year has certainly required new levels of courage, creativity, resilience, and empathy. Like most of our community, we were all in a bit of shock at the outset of the pandemic. For those of us charged with fostering a healthy business community and tourism economy, closing doors and restricting travel is as dreadful as it gets. But it also comes with the territory, so the only option was to dig in and work the problem.
In January, ACRA had just finished our new strategic plan, core values, technology plan and a community crisis plan, so we were as prepared as we could be to activate quickly. From the outset, we’ve worked daily with Pitkin County, Public Health, the city of Aspen, AVH (Aspen Valley Hospital), as well as several state agencies on defining and implementing health and economic responses. We called every member and asked what they needed. That help to organize the work that needed to get done.
Looking back, 2020 feels like a blur of long days and countless meetings, navigating continually changing information and coping with persistent uncertainty. I’m extremely proud of the vital role ACRA has played in our collective response to the pandemic. It has really revealed the extraordinary compassion and commitment of the ACRA board, our staff, and of course our members.
I’ve found some personal silver linings in all of this, including priceless quarantine time with my family, the immeasurable value of relationships, and a new appreciation for the simpler things in life. It was also my honor to have received the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Individual Contribution from the Colorado Tourism Office. The hardest part of the job this year was letting go of long-term employees, who feel more like family than a statistic.
I anticipate we experience COVID-19 impacts for the next several years, though we are looking for a sharp turn toward “normalcy” in 2021. I also believe the events of 2020 have brought us into a new age of cooperation and solidarity that will serve us well. Because we have created a way of “doing” in Aspen that will never settle for mediocrity.
Chair, Pitkin County board of health
“It took some pretty broad shoulders to shoulder the early months of this pandemic,” Markey Butler said.
Thick skin, too: As chair of the PItkin County Board of Health, Butler saw push back, resistance and anger directed at county staff when the board first enacted tight restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
“All of a sudden you get slapped, you can’t do this, you can’t do that and your business is not going to survive. … I understand their viewpoints,” Butler said.
Amid that frustration, changing behavior wasn’t easy — still isn’t easy, Butler said.
“In the first few months, there was no one that had any time off — they were working seven days a week, long hours, day in and day out,” she said. “And there was some burnout.”
The board bolstered staff with dozens of new roles to track and contain the virus; contact tracers and epidemiologists worked tirelessly to mitigate the spread. And once-quarterly board meetings turned into weekly, hours-long events to discuss the management of what Butler called a “fast and furious” virus. Her eyes were on every element of it.
With nearly 50 years of experience in health care under her belt, Butler has seen other epidemics before: AIDS, SARS, the swine flu.
“But nothing, none of those compared to what this COVID-19 took on,” said Butler, who also served as Snowmass Village mayor from 2014-20. “This has taken on a whole different personality.”
It’s been a learning curve, Butler said. And even as she emphasizes vigilance in virus containment, she also experiences the pandemic fatigue that many have felt after long months of distance and mask-wearing.
“It does get exhausting — but I tell you, what really makes the difference is to put yourself in the mindset of going out, taking a wonderful walk,” Butler said. She calls it “socializing with Mother Nature,” a way to find peace in a challenging year separated from many friends and family.
“One thing that I’ve learned is to get up every morning, put … one foot in front of the other foot, and walk, stand tall,” Butler said. “I wake up in the morning and say, ‘Thank God it’s a gorgeous day. I’m still here, enjoying this beautiful, beautiful community.’”
— Kaya Williams
Senior vice president of mountain operations, Aspen Skiing Co.
Prepping for ski season is always an invigorating yet stressful time for decision-makers at Aspen Skiing Co.: Will there be enough snow? Will they recruit enough workers? How will the economy affect travelers’ moods?
This year, the stress was magnified exponentially by COVID-19. After being forced to close down in the heart of the busy spring break period last season, ski areas had to come up with safety plans for this season that passed muster with county and state public health departments.
“You work cooperatively with every party that you can find that can bring value and insight into what you have to do,” Jeff Hanle, Skico vice president of communications, said as ski season got underway.
The result was a 53-page operating plan that received approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Nov. 16. It covers everything from how ski patrol will interact with an injured skier to how gondola riders will have to load their own boards to keep distanced from workers.
Katie Ertl, Skico senior vice president of mountain operations, was in the thick of the planning and on several of the committees Skico created to work on different aspects of COVID-19 planning, according to Hanle.
In mid-December, after lifts at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass had been spinning for a few weeks, Ertl was able to reflect on all the planning the company undertook. She liked what she was seeing. When asked to rate the opening on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best, she replied: “It would say we’re definitely right up there, an eight or a nine.”
Like everyone in their personal lives under COVID-19, Skico needed to tweak some of its operations as unexpected situations arose.
Ertl said Skico officials worked with an outside ski industry consultant to design its lift mazes to achieve social distancing. “Ghost lines” of open space were created for separation. Some of them required adjustments for further separation after Skico officials saw them in action, Ertl said.
And while Ertl said the majority of mountain visitors are complying with wearing masks and socially distancing in lift lines and other gathering points, employees are spending more time than anticipated on “mask patrol” — reminding folks that they must keep their masks up pretty much all the time except when skiing or riding.
“The mask enforcement is nonstop,” she said.
One COVID-19 measure that Skico hopes to avoid is implementing a reservation system. The company announced recently that it will not require reservations for pass holders and advance purchasers of lift ticket during the Christmas and New Year’s holiday period.
Holiday business is expected to take a hit this year and there’s plenty of terrain to spread people around.
“I think we’re preparing for about 75 percent of last year or of a normal year,” Ertl said in the mid-December interview.
That reflects a message emailed to customers by Skico President and CEO Mike Kaplan on Sept. 24.
“Generally, this winter will be quieter than it’s been in years, likely down at least 20 percent, with the reduction in international visitation, group events and corporate travel,” Kaplan wrote.
Later in the letter, he found a way to laugh at the predicament we’re under because of the coronavirus.
“For those who were here 20 years ago, you’ll remember our mythical marketing campaign UNCROWDED BY DESIGN,” Kaplan wrote, referring to a theme Skico claimed it never really implemented despite community perception. “It was a slogan ahead of its time, now relevant in a whole new context.”
— Scott Condon
City manager, city of Aspen
When City Manager Sara Ott learned of the first presumed COVID-19 case in Aspen in early March, she was helping lead her daughter’s Girl Scout troop meeting.
“My heart sunk, I knew everything was about to change,” she said. “The following days were a flurry of getting ready, our community was about to be overwhelmed and experience a very fast end to the ski season.”
Ott said she will never forget the phone call she had with Snowmass Village Town Manager Clint Kinney, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock and Aspen Skiing Co. President and CEO Mike Kaplan on March 14 when Gov. Jared Polis shut down ski areas throughout Colorado, and local leaders were trying to figure out how to get people safely out of town.
“That night was probably one of the most stressful nights for our community and that they had no idea what was coming and just knowing how much harder it was going to get before it got easier the night of that shutdown,” she said.
Ott was a step ahead in some regard as she had the foresight the day prior, on Friday, March 13, in having City Council declare a state of emergency.
“My decision to declare an emergency was not taken lightly and absolutely was necessary to prepare and respond,” she said. “If I am lucky, I won’t ever need to make a decision with such potential consequence again.”
Ott said there have been many long days and late nights since then, preparing the city organization to operate in emergency mode and with new business processes; listening to worried business owners and residents; keeping City Council informed of developments; implementing the city’s economic recovery priorities; and working closely with partners, such as nonprofits, the chamber of commerce, businesses, and other governments.
“Two things have gotten me through this time. First, I have met and worked with many wonderful people in our community. They stepped up in new and bold ways to make a difference,” Ott said. “These people range from known community leaders to the quiet volunteers at the food pantry line. I will always treasure these friendships and colleagues.
“Second, music has been my medicine. Many working nights still are filled with slow blues, my dog, Luna, and my laptop.”
— Carolyn Sackariason
County manager, Pitkin County
From the very beginning, Jon Peacock has been at the center of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since March, the 49-year-old county manager has helped Pitkin County commissioners identify money to provide financial assistance to residents, helped build a public health department that barely existed 10 months ago, manage an at-times chaotic relationship with the state and guide elected officials to through public policy confusion amid the pandemic panic.
“I don’t need to tell you, but 2020 has not been a normal year,” Peacock said last week. “The last 10 months have been unprecedented in my career.”
Not only did the pandemic prompt economic chaos, hardship and record unemployment, 2020 also brought social unrest, deep political divisions and an influx of new residents fleeing the pandemic from big cities like Los Angeles and New York and who are impacting services, he said.
Peacock said his biggest challenge has been balancing competing but still valid interests among, for example, public health and economic concerns.
“It’s trying to strike a balance between what I term ’right versus right decisions,’” he said. “For the pandemic, we have to do all the things we know need to be done to protect public health. But often those come at the expense of the primary employment in a rural, resort community.
“We’re always making those choices.”
Peacock said his hopes for 2021 are high because vaccine distribution has begun.
“I’m super excited to have a light at the end of the tunnel for the pandemic,” he said.
Beyond that, Peacock said he’s looking forward to being able to come up for air and have a chance to reflect on a disruptive year and analyze the changes that are likely to come out of the pandemic. Those could include alterations to how the county provides services, who works from home and who commutes and other changes across the entire community.
Hardships also will be part of the picture, he said. Small business and families and individuals who have had to go into debt will continue to face financial difficulties.
“How we come out (of the pandemic) as a resilient community will take much of the next couple years and not just the next year,” Peacock said.
— Jason Auslander
CEO, Aspen Valley Hospital
Aspen Valley Hospital is a 25-bed, critical-access hospital in the remote Rocky Mountains, so its staff and administration stay ready for just about anything.
“We train all the time for what we call mass-casualty incidents, a plane crash or a bus crash,” said hospital CEO David Ressler, noting it also is prepared for local occurrences like a wildfire, those “larger incidents affecting the community.”
Those are time-limited incidents when the hospital would have a better idea with how many patients it would be handling. The coronavirus, however, is a different animal.
“To be able to manage this was unlike anything I’ve experienced in my career,” Ressler said, “because there has been no ending.”
From establishing a respiratory evaluation center on the hospital campus during the early stages of the pandemic to bringing in community testing, there was little resting for AVH leaders and staff. Doctors and others also put in volunteer time.
Ressler and other hospital staff were vaccinated earlier this month because they are in the medical field. Protecting staff from the virus has been a concern all year; the hospital has experienced ebbs and flows with staff either out sick or quarantined because of the virus.
The hospital has seen a small number of overnight patients with the virus, yet Ressler said he is well aware that could change in a hurry and put the county into the Red phase. The county’s high incidence rate has more than quadrupled the state’s rate of 350 to enter the Red. It would go into the Red with the hospitalization of three Pitkin County residents in one day for COVID-19.
“We believe that with a such high incidence rate in the community, at some point that’s going to translate into an increase” in patient hospitalizations, Ressler said.
He added, “We don’t have any reason to believe we are immune from that, yet we haven’t seen it yet.”
Ressler has stayed on message — adhering to the five commitments, not letting your guard down — since realizing the second week in March that the coronavirus would bring Herculean challenges.
Keeping the hospital functional and operational are the hospital’s primary — but not sole — concerns during the pandemic, he said.
“No. 1 for us is to not be overwhelmed with patients,” he said. “But we’re also very attuned to the social detriments of overall health of our community — substance abuse, food insecurity, all the other issues that arise” when economic hardship and social isolation happen during a pandemic.
“We’re very in tune to working with and listening to our community partners about how we find the right balance.”
Ressler said community partnership has been vital to making progress and key decisions. The hospital staff also has demonstrated its deep-rooted commitment to local health care.
“We really felt the privilege and the responsibility of being the community hospital through this pandemic,” he said. “And it’s truly something that all of our organization and staff have a sense of responsibility for, and that’s been very rewarding.”
— Rick Carroll
Interim public health director, Pitkin County
Jordana Sabella’s greatest hope for 2021 is, not surprisingly, the rapid distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to Roaring Fork Valley residents.
Pitkin County’s interim public health director and her team have been lurching from one crisis to another for months, so the day when everyone who wants the vaccine has it will be cause for celebration, she said. And a much-needed time to take a deep breath.
“(My hope is) being able to move forward from every-day crisis response in the pandemic and be able to push forward past what we are doing today to (focus on) what we can plan on,” Sabella said. “And hopefully we can bring some stability back to people’s lives.”
Sabella took over as interim public health director in mid-November, after Karen Koenemann resigned to take another job in her native Alaska. However, Sabella has been an integral part of the county’s public health team from the beginning of the pandemic — leading the community liaison/consumer compliance efforts — and has worked for the county since 2011.
“The last 10 months brought a new experience every day,” she said. “We’ve been learning how to pivot every day and react to changing situations.”
Like county manager Jon Peacock, Sabella characterized the COVID-19 roller-coaster ride of the past 10 months as “unprecedented.” The scale of the pandemic’s effects on people’s lives have been so wide and deep, the implications will continue to affect mental health, the economy and other aspects of life for months, she said.
“There was unprecedented disruption this year,” Sabella said. “It has been filled with more change than I’ve ever seen at any point in my life.”
She said she takes comfort in the strength of her public health team and their partners in the community, who will continue to adapt and modify in an effort help residents make it through the pandemic.
“I hope we can come together and rebuild,” Sabella said.
— Jason Auslander
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As much as anyone else, Dr. Greg Balko is tired of the pandemic. The emergency medicine physician and other health care workers on the front lines in Aspen are experiencing the same pandemic fatigue that has wearied many in the face of COVID-19.