Pitkin County approves groups up to 50 with next week’s health order; restaurant dine-in service near certain
Board of Health also gives update on lodging opening at 50% capacity
Get ready, Aspen, because come Wednesday, restaurants and bars are nearly certain to open for dine-in service after two-and-a-half months on standby.
The Pitkin County Board of Health on Thursday approved rules for eateries to open their doors and also to raise the group size from the current 10-person maximum to 50 people when the new public health order begins on Wednesday.
As well, the health board voted to allow lodging to open at 50% capacity starting May 27, which will happen no matter what course the state chooses because lodging is already allowed statewide as an essential service. Certain types of short-term rentals that are professionally managed could be part of that opening.
However, for restaurant owners and those looking to have an early summer event, the future is not set in stone yet.
First, Gov. Jared Polis and the state of Colorado must provide guidance on where they stand on restaurants and gathering sizes, and that is set to come May 25 or just two days before the current public health order is set to expire.
If the state does not open restaurants or chooses another group size number at that time, Pitkin County will have to rely on a variance it submitted Monday to the state that would allow those two things.
If the variance isn’t granted, the guidance on dine-in restaurant service would defer to whatever the state decides.
However, both Board of Health Chair Markey Butler and Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock pointed out Thursday that the state has made clear rumblings in recent days that restaurants will be allowed to open in some capacity, including releasing guidelines Thursday.
“I don’t think the state is going to walk back (its restaurant comments),” said Butler, who also is mayor of Snowmass Village.
If Pitkin County gets its way, restaurants in Aspen and the county won’t have to keep capacity to an arbitrary number, according to Thursday’s Board of Health’s decision. Instead, tables will have to be 8 feet apart with no more than six people at each table. The same rules would apply to outdoor seating.
This way, the particular space and social-distancing requirements will dictate capacity, which must be outlined in a business safety plan filed with Pitkin County Public Health, Peacock said.
Not requiring a restaurant percentage capacity cap also is the route the state is likely to take, he said. Finally, Peacock said in the meeting Thursday that he had just received a text informing him the state released restaurant opening guidelines.
The Pitkin County Board of Health announced updates Thursday for the next phase of reopening. They include:
— Group sizes up to 50 people;
— Restaurants can open for in-dining with tables of 6 and at least 8 feet apart (applies to outdoor dining as well);
— Lodging can open at 50% of capacity
Aspen Mayor Torre pressed his colleagues on the board to give restaurants a more solid opening date so they can better prepare. But Peacock said that if the state decides against allowing restaurants to open and doesn’t grant the variance, “we can’t grant the authority,” so a guaranteed opening is not possible.
For lodging, Board of Health members decided to align with plans in neighboring Eagle and Gunnison counties, which both plan to open hotels at 50% capacity. Summit County, by contrast, has decided to align with the state and not cap hotel capacity and instead rely on social-distancing protocols to dictate capacity, Peacock said.
Peacock noted that airline service in June will be down 80% — from 142 flights a week to 26 — so that will limit lodging somewhat. He also said that smaller lodges could benefit from the Summit County model, provided appropriate social distancing could be achieved.
Torre and Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, both health board members, said they supported the 50% capacity to start with and keep tourist growth slower, then see what happens in four weeks.
“I’m happy to be a bit more cautious,” Poschman said. “I think we’re going to see a lot of drive-in visitors when we open the door.”
The only member of the Board of Health against the 50% cap was Butler, who advocated repeatedly for the numerous condominium complexes and small lodges in her town to be allowed to observe no capacity limit.
“Fifty percent penalizes Snowmass Village,” she said.
No one else supported her position. Butler voted against the lodging proposal, which was the only time she called, as chair, for an opposing vote during any of the votes taken during Thursday’s meeting.
Short-term rentals is another gray area in Pitkin County’s lodging future, Peacock said.
County public health officials are waiting for guidance from state officials on the subject, he said. However, if the state grants their variance, a certain class of short-term rentals would be included in Pitkin County’s lodging opening.
Ownership associations, private residences, “condo-tels,” resort clubs and other lodging facilities that are professionally managed with onsite management would be allowed to open, even if bookings are handled by VRBO-type booking websites, Peacock said.
The Board of Health approved that action Thursday if it becomes possible.
Finally, members of the health board talked about maximum group size heading into phase 2 of reopening.
Eagle County is planning to allow maximum group sizes of 50 people, Peacock said, and Pitkin County staff support that occurring here.
Board member Brent Miller said he wanted to emphasize personal responsibility to adhere to social-distancing guidelines, including wearing a face mask. His colleague, Tom Kurt, seconded the sentiment.
“As a senior citizen, I’m offended about 20- and 30-year-olds not wearing masks,” Kurt said.
Dr. Kimberly Levin, Pitkin County’s medical officer and an Aspen Valley Hospital physician, urged the board to cap group size at 25 people.
“Twenty-five is slower, but it’s definitely an opening,” she said.
The board instead supported the 50-person limit, so long as that is approved by the state or the variance is granted.
COVID-19 cases and infection rates in Pitkin County remain low, said Levin and Pitkin County epidemiologist Charlie Spickert.
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