Outside masks mandated, group size reduced to 10
Pitkin County and Aspen visitors will have to wear a face mask outside when they are around other people not in their household starting in a week, the county Board of Health decided Thursday.
“If you’re near others, wear a mask,” said board member Brent Miller. “Keep it simple.”
In addition, board members reduced the number of people allowed to gather in informal social gatherings from 50 to 10 to try and better control the spread of COVID-19 in the city and county.
Those changes to Pitkin County’s public health order will go into effect July 30.
The face mask change eliminates a portion of the current health order that says people must wear a mask outside if they stop and talk to someone not in their household within less than 6 feet for more than 10 minutes.
Board members contemplated removing the less-than-6-foot requirement as well, with most agreeing that if residents and visitors are “near” or “around” other people outside, they must wear a mask. However, that prompted Dr. Kimberly Levin — the county’s medical officer and an emergency room physician at Aspen Valley Hospital — to wonder about the ambiguity of those words and suggest leaving the “less than 6 feet” metric in the order.
Whatever the exact distance, the message from board members was clear: If people walk past others on the sidewalk or on a trail, put on a face mask, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said after the meeting.
Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, a member of the health board, also said people should have their masks visible when outside and ready to use if others pass by.
“I agree with Greg,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said. “Have it visible and able to be put on if you see others (approaching).”
It is not necessary for bicyclists to wear masks while passing others as the risk of transmission in those situations is low, said Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann.
Aspen Mayor Torre — who along with fellow City Council members is likely to soon establish a mask zone in downtown Aspen — and Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler also were supportive of people wearing masks outside while around others.
“I would anticipate we are moving in that direction,” Torre said. “We’ve been so accommodating. We’ve got to do something strong of nature to get a grip on this.”
Current data is insufficient to determine an exact time that constitutes “prolonged exposure,” Levin said, noting it depends on how close a person is, the type of air movement at the time and whether someone coughs. However, she urged the use of face masks and said two studies published in June showed that face masks resulted in a large reduction of COVID-19 transmission.
“I believe wearing a mask is the single most important step to reduce risk of transmission,” Levin said.
Pitkin County has registered 27 new COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days, which corresponds to Fourth of July celebrations, said Charlie Spickert, an epidemiologist working with Pitkin County Public Health.
Between the beginning of the pandemic in March and July 1, Pitkin County had 99 confirmed positive cases, he said. As of Thursday, that number had jumped to 162 confirmed positive cases, a 64% increase over the last three weeks and “an indicator of rising spread of the virus,” Spickert said.
By contrast, Garfield County has seen an 88% increase in confirmed positive cases over the past three weeks, while Eagle County has see a 28% increase since July 1, he said.
Visitors from Texas, a COVID-19 hot spot, currently pose the most risk of exposing the virus to Pitkin County residents, Spickert said. Two weeks ago, the largest risk came from other Pitkin County and Garfield County residents, he said.
As of Thursday at noon, there were 12 people in isolation in Pitkin County because they’d tested positive for the virus, while 35 more were under quarantine orders because they’d been exposed to someone who’d tested positive, said Josh Vance, another epidemiologist working with the county.
Pitkin County’s overall outlook, however, remained manageable, Levin said. The number of people who continue to request tests remains high, but just one person was hospitalized at Aspen Valley Hospital with COVID-19 as of Thursday, and the number of hospital workers out sick also remained below an average that would concern officials, she said. The county has registered just two deaths since the pandemic began.
Still, the rising numbers easily convinced health board members to dial back the limit on informal social gatherings, which public health officials have blamed for recent outbreaks. Koenemann acknowledged that the new rule is difficult to enforce, though she said it was important for the board to send a message.
“It’s helping the community to understand (they need) to stay in small social bubbles,” she said.
The health order does not prohibit families larger than 10 people from gathering, said Jordana Sabella, a public health official.
Businesses or individuals can host gatherings larger than 10 people, though they must obtain a permit from Pitkin County Public Health and file a safety plan in order to be able to do so.
Finally, health board members also approved efforts by county public health staff to lobby Gov. Jared Polis to issue a statewide restriction on Colorado visitors mandating that they must be symptom free of the virus for 10 days before traveling here. That restriction could include further rules governing travelers from hot spots like Florida, Texas and California.
“The sooner we get this under control, the better we are,” said Butler, the health board chairwoman. “There are a lot of folks here from Texas and Florida. It makes me very nervous.”
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