Aspen-area officials urge distance as virus bears down
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Reports of an impromptu party at an Aspen park this week have irked local public health officials, who think it’s more evidence that residents are not taking social-distancing measures seriously enough amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
“(The story) got us thinking that people are underestimating what (social distancing) means for them,” said Bill Linn, Aspen assistant police chief and spokesman for the team managing the local coronavirus response. “It’s kind of frustrating to learn that not everyone is taking this seriously.”
Meanwhile, a significant Aspen-area economic indicator released Thursday appeared unsurprisingly bleak, as airlines prepared to cut commercial air service to the Aspen airport in the near future.
Still, Pitkin County didn’t appear nearly as bad off as neighboring Eagle County, where the number of COVID-19 cases was surging Thursday and continuing to impact that county’s health care system, according to a state official. In fact, no one has been hospitalized with COVID-19 at Aspen Valley Hospital on Thursday, with no signs of a surge in patients materializing so far, said Jennifer Slaughter, AVH spokeswoman.
“We have zero patients hospitalized at AVH with COVID,” Slaughter said Thursday by text.
State and local public health officials also said Thursday they had no immediate plans to go the route of San Miguel County, where local public health officials Wednesday ordered residents to shelter in place and partnered with a biotech company to test the entire county for COVID-19.
Finally, the state public health department Thursday amended its order closing bars and restaurants and closed other “non-essential personal services,” including hair and nail salons, spas, tattoo and massage parlors, horse tracks and off-track betting sites, according to an updated public health order. That order has been extended to run through April 30.
But it was a Pitkin County commissioner’s experience Tuesday with a group of about 20 young people drinking beer in Rio Grande Park and celebrating their last day working together that resonated with some local officials leading the response to the virus.
Commissioner Patti Clapper called Aspen police on the crew after one member became “nasty” with her after she suggested they practice better social distancing. The incident occurred before the state health department issued an order banning gatherings of more than 10 people.
“People do (social distancing) in the grocery store but not with their friends,” Linn said. “And we’re saying you’ve got to change social norms.
“It’s not enough to do your part around strangers. You have to do it in all your circles.”
For example, getting together with a small group at a park or field for a workout is fine provided people maintain the recommended 6-foot distance, he said. Heading over to a co-worker’s home for a happy hour cocktail when you’re not able to see them at the office because everyone’s working from home, however, is not fine.
“It’s not like we’re trying to squash anyone’s social life,” Linn said. “But if you’re sitting in close proximity to someone for an extended period of time, you’re at risk for infection.”
Linn also offered a piece of advice to those who use dating apps.
“How about this?” he said. “Turn off the Tinder app. The truth is this is not the time for that.”
In short, keep your distance.
“The bottom line is that it doesn’t work to say it’s OK (to practice social distancing) around this group and it’s not OK around that group,” Linn said. “You can’t say if someone is infectious or not.”
Scott Bookman, the Colorado public health department’s COVID incident commander, echoed those sentiments Thursday during a statewide media conference call.
“The community needs to come to understand that the only way we’re going to stop this illness is through social distancing,” Bookman said. “People need to keep their distance wherever possible.”
But while that distancing may save lives, it is cratering both the national and local economies.
February, for example, was the “best ever and one of the best single month performances” in the history of Aspen Skiing Co.’s central reservations agency, according to a Skico executive. March, however, has been another story.
Though occupancy numbers are not yet available for March, bookings for the month began 2% down amid initial virus concerns, then “dropped considerably” during the first week as COVID-19 began to impact the Aspen area, according to an occupancy update Thursday by Kristi Kavanaugh, Skico vice president of sales.
“Once it was reported in week two that we had presumptive positives, the cancellations began to outpace the new bookings,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Then came Gov. Jared Polis’ order Saturday closing all of Colorado’s ski mountains, which “created a cascade of cancellations and subsequent business closures,” according to the update.
“While clarity on the full scope of business ramifications throughout the community is murky, we can share that (Skico’s reservations agency, Stay Aspen Snowmass) is forecasted to lose 17% of its full winter business due to the closure,” Kavanaugh wrote.
Aspen’s commercial air service also is about to be cut drastically, according to an update by local travel consultant Bill Tomcich included in Kavanaugh’s update.
Delta Airlines stopped direct flights to Aspen from Atlanta and Los Angeles on Wednesday, while United Airlines planned to stop all non-Denver flights by this weekend, according to Tomcich, a consultant to Fly Aspen Snowmass. American Airlines also will suspend all flights to Aspen, though it plans to resume flights from Dallas by early June.
United and Delta also plan to cut flights to Aspen from Denver and Salt Lake City, Tomcich said.
Aspen airport Director John Kinney confirmed those changes Thursday. He also said “load factors,” or the number of sold seats on flights in and out of Aspen, will drop to below 20% for the next two weeks, and on some days will dip into the single digits.
“The impact of not flying airplanes in this country is real profound,” Kinney said.
And while the economics surrounding COVID-19 are painful and devastating to many in the Aspen area and beyond, state officials reported no more positive virus cases in Pitkin County on Thursday, and no one in Aspen Valley Hospital has it.
That stood in stark contrast to Eagle County, where Bookman said public health officials have seen “a significant surge of patients.”
“It’s clearly the area of the state with the highest number of patients,” he said, “and it’s clearly impacting their health care system.”
The state health department has no clear epidemiological evidence showing how Eagle County became such a hot spot, Bookman said. However, the department has seen evidence of “widespread community transmission” and a high rate of respiratory illness consistent with COVID-19, he said.
In San Miguel County, local public health officials partnered with a private bio-tech company called United Biomedical to test all county residents who wanted it. The company uses a blood test to determine if someone has COVID-19, as opposed to a swab used by the state health department in a different test.
The test is free for county residents but not mandatory.
Bookman said state public health officials are assessing the efficacy of the blood test and have not yet made a determination about it.
San Miguel County, which includes Telluride, is the only county in Colorado so far to issue a shelter in place order.