Lodging date elusive as Pitkin County’s new order gains approval
Three elected officials tried Thursday to nail down public health staff on an opening date for lodging in Aspen and Pitkin County this summer.
But all three — Aspen Mayor Torre, Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler and Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman — failed to extract the elusive date from the data-driven wonks.
“It’s hard not to put a date on this,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said during a virtual meeting of the county’s Board of Health. “I know people are trying to plan their futures, plan their businesses.
“(But) we have to wait to see how many people test positive for COVID-19. We’ve gotta give it time. And unfortunately it takes awhile.”
So while short-term lodging remains up in the air — it could be allowed as early as July and as late as September — other aspects of everyday life will open up significantly in Aspen and Pitkin County beginning May 9. They will include retail stores, real estate showings, voluntary medical and veterinary procedures, professional offices, barber shops and salons.
All will require significant social-distancing requirements outlined in a 35-page “safer at home” order issued last weekend by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis. Most openings and restrictions here will piggyback on those outlined in the governor’s order.
However, there will be exceptions.
One of the most significant for recreation-focused residents of the Roaring Fork Valley is the local alteration to Polis’ rule requiring residents to hike, bike and otherwise recreate within 10 miles of their homes. Board of Health members instead voted to take the advice of public health officials and allow residents to use the entire Roaring Fork Valley, “and all associated valleys” for recreation and better mental health.
“It kind of makes more sense for where we are,” said Dr. Kimberly Levin, the county’s medical officer and a physician at Aspen Valley Hospital. “It at least gives more of a sense that our community is the whole valley.
“You can’t even get to Basalt in 10 miles.”
Other differences with the state order include requiring, instead of recommending, county residents to wear face masks when inside public buildings and within 6 feet of other people, and requiring those with the virus to wait 10 days instead of seven from the onset of symptoms to leave isolation.
Pitkin County will also fall into line with the state order and increase the maximum group gathering size from five to 10 beginning May 9, the health board decided Thursday.
County officials also outlined their long-term strategy for dealing with the virus.
It will require spending about $2 million this year and next to build the infrastructure to be able to test, trace and isolate every case of COVID-19 that comes to Pitkin County for the next 12 to 18 months, or until a vaccine is discovered, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said.
Currently, with a population that includes 22,000 full-time residents, part-time residents and commuters, the county needs to have the capacity to test 33 people a day — following a standard of 150 tests per 100,000 people — and have seven investigators on hand to track down contacts, he said. That has been achieved, Levin said.
Officials said earlier this week that when testing for anyone with symptoms began April 24, 18 tests were performed. Of those, 15 test results have come back with just one positive result, Levin said Thursday. Numerous other tests done on pre-operation patients at the hospital and others in the same time period also all came back negative, she said.
“We’re at a really great place,” Levin said. “We’re well positioned at the hospital to start this gradual opening up.”
Modeling and available data show that about 3% of the county’s full-time population of just under 18,000 people are infected, Levin said. Put another way, 97% of residents are potentially still susceptible to the disease, she said.
In order to open up Aspen to tourists, the county must be able to provide adequate testing, contact tracing and quarantine facilities for a far larger number of people, Peacock said. Including full-time population, part-time residents, tourists and commuters, the high season population in town is estimated at about 53,000 people, while the average is just under 44,000, he said.
Recognizing that the coronavirus will likely shrink tourist numbers in the area, Peacock said officials chose to base their infrastructure testing capacity on 90% of that average population number, or about 39,500 people. Using the same accepted testing capacity standard would require the ability to test 59 people per day and employ up to 12 contact tracers, he said.
“We’re not there yet,” Peacock said. “We think we can reach it (in partnership) with the hospital.”
The county would also need to hire an additional four staff members to interface with the community and businesses on consumer protection issues like health order implementation, as well as testing and other support, he said.
Once that strategy is in place, officials can begin to think more seriously about lifting restrictions imposed by public health orders.
That timeline — which officials presented with a familiar skiing theme Thursday — begins May 9 with the changes approved by the health board. That first phase is being called the “green” or “beginner” phase, according to a chart released Thursday.
Officials plan to take four to eight weeks to consider hospital data about virus infection rates in the county before moving on to the next “intermediate” or “blue” phase, where group sizes would increase to between 25 and 50 people. That would include the possible opening of restaurants, bars, gyms, playgrounds and some sports, according to the chart.
Four to eight weeks after that, provided data shows manageable infection rates, the county would enter the “expert” or “black” phase, where group sizes might increase to as many as 250 and lodging could open. Peacock and public health officials said they will keep a close eye on the data and if it indicates restrictions can be lifted within four weeks, as opposed to eight, they will move forward with doing so. As health officials emphasized with the elected officials pressing them for concrete answers Thursday, the data and science will guide their decisions.
In theory, that means that lodging in Aspen could be ready to go, with social-distancing restrictions, by August or September, Peacock said. And provided there’s no backsliding, that means lodging can be booked from that point on under the social distancing guidelines.
Eagle County is committed to roughly the same restriction lifting timeline as Pitkin County, while Summit County has shuttered all short-term lodging until May 31. That loose alliance is meant to spare any one mountain resort community from experiencing a massive influx of visitors once lodging opens, Peacock said.
The state of Colorado allowed hotels and other accommodations to open under the safer at home order, though it excluded short-term, “vacation-style” rentals like those booked on Airbnb or VRBO.
The county’s new “safer at home” health order that will go into effect May 9 did not have an official expiration date as of Thursday, though it will probably be set at about six weeks, Peacock said.
That date is important because Pitkin County Board of Health members voted Thursday for language in their health order requiring all short-term lodging units to “be vacated by guests through the extent of this order.”
“Short-term lodging operators must block out their online reservation calendars on all relevant platforms through the extent of this order,” according to the county’s order. “Short-term lodging is not allowed to have any guest occupancy at the business premises prior to the termination of this order.”
Exceptions exist for essential workers, local residents or those in quarantine staying at lodging facilities.
None of that stopped the elected officials from trying to exact a date from the public health officials Thursday.
“When can we open lodging?” Mayor Butler asked, noting that she’d like to welcome back second-home and condo owners before guests. Peacock told her second-home owners were welcome, they’d just have to quarantine for 14 days if they come to town.
Mayor Torre pleaded for “a little bit of insight.”
“What does ‘Waiting to see’ mean?” he asked. “What are we looking at here?”
Levin told him that opening lodging is a milestone not to take lightly.
“This is going to be a big, big step,” she said. “When you start bringing in visitors, that’s when the risk (of a spike in virus cases) is going to happen.”
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