Pitkin County Health Board: More COVID-19 positives equals no bars
An increasing number of COVID-19 cases in Aspen and Pitkin County means bars will not be allowed to open Friday, the county’s Board of Health decided Thursday.
In fact, bars and bar seating at restaurants may not be allowed to open at any capacity until possibly as late as July 24, though they could be allowed to open as early as July 10 provided the number of area COVID-19 cases remains stable.
“We feel better to wait and see how the data plays out before we” allow bars to open even at the 25% capacity currently allowed by the state of Colorado, Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said Thursday.
The state public health department has not yet even released guidelines on how bars can safely open, so that must first be created before anything can happen, she said.
Business liaisons with Pitkin County also have not yet begun outreach efforts to the bar community in Aspen, Snowmass Village and Pitkin County, though that is expected to begin next week, said Kara Silbernagel, project and policy manager for the county. The continued closing affects 15 bars in the county, she said.
Restaurant patrons are not allowed to sit at bar areas where drinks are being prepared, said Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock. If the bar is not being used to make drinks, the bar seating can be used like another table, he said.
Hotels and lodges, however, will be allowed to open Friday at 100% capacity, while museums, residential camps and ceremonies like weddings and funerals can open or begin to be held at limited capacities.
Meanwhile, Pitkin County saw 11 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, said Charlie Spickert, a county epidemiologist. Three of those were linked to workplace clusters, two were tracked to household transmission and two remain under investigation, he said. The remaining two will be removed from the Pitkin County statistics because one came from an antibody test indicating an older infection and another was occurred in Garfield County.
The number of new cases still classifies Pitkin County as stable, Spickert said. Eagle County, which saw 33 new cases in the past week and has a much larger population, also remains stable, he said. Garfield County, by contrast, registered 44 new COVID-19 cases in the past week with six hospitalizations, and is now classified as having an increasing infection rate, he said.
Dr. Kimberly Levin, an emergency room physician at Aspen Valley Hospital and Pitkin County’s medical officer, said Pitkin County’s increase in both testing and positive cases “is rapid and sharp” and moving the county toward a more cautious footing.
“We do not feel comfortable at the hospital,” she said. “This is sounding an alarm for us and it is sounding an alarm for everyone in the community.”
And while the COVID-19 hospitalization remains low — no one in the hospital with the disease Thursday — Levin cautioned that hospitalization rates don’t parallel positive case numbers. Doctors expect to see those tracking hospitalization rates in 10 to 14 days, she said, while death rates will lag even further behind.
The number of COVID-19 cases nationwide is rising as well, with Texas, Florida and California responsible for the highest jump in confirmed positives, Levin said.
“That’s the exact three states where people are traveling here from,” she said.
Spickert presented a graph during Thursday’s Board of Health meeting showing the percentage of local activity in Pitkin County based on place of origin, which backed up Levin’s statement. While about 23% of local activity is by Pitkin County residents and 20.5% come from Garfield County, a bit more than 10% of people now in Pitkin County come from Texas, according to the graph. Just over 5% came from Florida and 4% came from California, according to the graph.
“Texas, Florida and California account for combined (nearly) 20% of risk to Pitkin County residents!” according to the graph.
Spickert later cautioned that the statistics don’t mean that 20% of the newest cases came from those three states, or that passing a Texan on the street provides a 10% greater chance of catching the virus. It merely means that 20% of people in Aspen and Pitkin County are from Sun Belt states with skyrocketing infection rates, which provides a greater chance of having and importing the virus here.
Large numbers of visitors to Aspen are being tested at the hospital, Peacock said.
Spickert suggested looking at further strategies to limit the risk of exposure here presented by people from hot-spot areas. Levin asked the board to include a clause in the newest public health order requiring all visitors to be COVID-19-symptom free for 10 days before coming to Aspen and Pitkin County.
“That would really help to send a message and protect our community,” Levin said.
The health board did not act on her suggestion Thursday.
Koenemann said the increasing infection rate is not a surprise.
“We know this was expected,” she said. “We know the virus is here. We’ve been opening on a rolling basis and maybe we need to slow the roll a little bit.”
Spickert, Levin and Koenemann emphasized that residents and visitors alike must continue to observe social distancing, wear face masks inside businesses and when within 6 feet of other people, practice good hygiene, wash hands frequently and get tested immediately if COVID-19 symptoms show up. Masks, especially, are important, Levin said.
“This is very simple: masks work,” she said. “You’re (wearing) it to protect someone else. You are actually responsible for protecting me.”
Spickert emphasized avoiding what he called “The Three Cs.” That means staying away from closed spaces, crowded places and close-range conversations, he said.
Brent Miller, a member of the Board of Health, said he’s observed a sense of complacency around town that indicates people aren’t taking precautions seriously. He said he recently saw a large group of teens playing basketball, while he overheard an older man in a crowd of people wearing masks say he simply wasn’t going to do the same.
Miller suggested ramping up enforcement and fines to try to get people’s attention and perhaps embarrass them into compliance.
But Peacock said mask-wearing will come around in time.
“This is a cultural issue and cultures don’t change quickly,” he said. “It might not happen as quickly as you’d like, but it is happening.”
Finally, board members talked about screening processes at the Aspen airport, where Peacock said the number of people on planes coming in — known as load factors — are increasing. Officials are looking at establishing voluntary symptom screening at the facility, and currently provide education about COVID-19-related rules in Pitkin County.
In addition, the county has acquired 30,000 masks to hand out to arriving passengers. The 30,000 masks should last through the summer and into the fall shoulder season, Peacock said.
Still, the number of flights coming in to Aspen overall remains way down from a normal summer, and that most visitors to town are coming in by car, he said. That means that officials must use numerous channels — including hotels and lodges — to get the message to visitors to take steps to limit exposure to others.
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