Orange returns in Pitkin County, though “we’re not out of the woods yet”

With incident rate dropping, limited indoor dining and other business capacities can increase under Orange-level restrictions

Pitkin County’s move back to Orange-level restrictions Tuesday prompted relief and happiness from local officials, though some sounded notes of caution as well.

“I’m going out to dinner,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said Monday. “I think we’ve got to hang in there for the rest of the season so the community as a whole can survive financially. I hope the community stays vigilant to protect our neighbors.”

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who serves as vice-chair of the county’s board of health, struck a stronger note of caution Monday.

“We’re not out of the woods yet,” he said. “Relaxing a little bit doesn’t mean, ‘Party on, Garth.’ We need to be vigilant and not let our guard down.”

The county’s incidence rate per 100,000 people was hovering around 3,000 for most of the first two weeks of January before the health board decided Jan. 11 to move into Red-level restrictions, which closed restaurant indoor dining. However on Monday – just 15 days later – the incidence rate dropped to 642, prompting the move back to Orange level.

The Board of Health voted to adopt criteria starting Jan. 17 that set the incidence rate for moving back to Orange at 700, so that once the rate dropped to 699 or below the move would happen the next day. Public health officials have said the 700 incidence rate mark allows them to keep up with contact tracing county-wide, which had become nearly impossible with the rate topping 3,000.

The number of cases per day also has dropped significantly, from highs of more than 100 a day in early January to between about 30 and two per day over the past week, according to the local data. In total, the county has logged 1,856 positive COVID-19 cases since March 1, according to local epidemiology data. That means about 10% of county residents have been infected with the virus so far.

In addition, the positivity rate — which measures the number of positive tests out of all tests administered — has dropped from more than 12% in early January to 5.3% on Monday. One person remained hospitalized at Aspen Valley Hospital with COVID-19 as of Monday, according to the local epidemiology data.

Pitkin County public health officials have said they remain concerned about the more contagious variants of COVID-19 from the U.K. and South Africa showing up here. However, despite sending samples to the state public health lab, none have confirmed the presence of those variants yet, Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, said Monday.

Garfield County officials are investigating a suspected case of one of the variants, however, he said.

The move to Orange-level restrictions Tuesday allows restaurants to open again at 25% indoor dining capacity, with 10 p.m. last call and as many as 10-person dining parties, which are not limited by the number of households. Bars must remain closed.

Also, personal gatherings that were forbidden under the Red level now are allowed with as many as 10 people with from two households. Offices and gyms can open at 25% capacity, while retail will be allowed to operate at 50% capacity under the Orange level.

Indoor events can resume at 25% capacity with a maximum of 50 people, while outdoor events can move forward at 25% capacity with a maximum of 75 people.

Aspen Mayor Torre, who advocated moving to Orange-level restrictions Monday during a health board meeting last week, said he was pleased with the move Tuesday.

“It is best that we fight both the virus itself, and also the impacts that is has on our community members,” he said in a Monday email to The Aspen Times. “This is just a first step in living safely, remaining committed to minimizing transmission and supporting our residents for health and safety. We are still requiring that businesses and individuals do their part to not catch or spread the virus. It will take all of us working together.”

Pitkin County Board Chairwoman Kelly McNicholas Kury said she was happy the community has grown healthier over the past two weeks as a result of the Board of Health’s decision to go to Red.

“I’m glad the health board stuck to the health order last week,” she said. “I’ve always thought this was going to be most difficult time of the pandemic.”

Still, she said she was concerned that opening back up again will allow the virus to “ping-pong up and down” again as more visitors book trips to Aspen.

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