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Pitkin County board: Open restaurants soon

Diners enjoy the deck at Heather's restaurant in Basalt.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times |

A majority of Pitkin County commissioners pushed Tuesday to allow local restaurants and lodging to begin opening with restrictions at the end of May or early June.

“We have to find a way to have restaurants help themselves … or we’re gonna lose an extreme amount of our economy, which will take us years, if ever, to recover from,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said during the board’s weekly work session.

In addition, commissioners balked at spending between $1.3 million and nearly $2 million over the next 12 to 18 months in the face of declining revenue to build a testing and contact-tracing infrastructure in the county from scratch. They asked County Manager Jon Peacock to come up with other funding solutions for the testing and tracing system, which is considered essential to opening the local economy.

“We need alternative ideas to be able to pay for this rather than just starting on hiring 14 to 18 people,” Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said.

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Pitkin County’s stay-at-home public health order expires May 8, when a new easing of the restrictions on retail businesses begins and the local group size limit is slated to increase from five to 10, among other things. Local public health officials have said they will begin phase two of the restriction lifting, which will include opening restaurants and lodging with restrictions, four to eight weeks later. The ambiguity surrounding an opening date for so many crucial pieces of Aspen’s local economy has caused much consternation in the community, Commissioner Greg Poschman said.

“There’s so many dates bouncing around,” he said. “We really have to try to be clear with the dates.”

Poschman said he supported allowing restaurants and bars to open May 27, the scheduled end of the state of Colorado’s current “safer at home” public health order. He said he wanted to see local public health officials work with restaurant and bar owners to come up with creative solutions to get the businesses open.

“This may be the summer where we take the traffic out of downtown Aspen and open up the streets for cafes so people can separate and we can still have an economy,” Poschman said. “It’s been impressed on me and everyone else just how grave this is.”

Commissioner Steve Child also said he “could see” supporting allowing restaurants and lodging to open May 27, and urged Board of Health members — who will meet Thursday — to set a firm opening date to allow business owners to plan. He said he thinks that based on the community’s near total buy-in on stay-at-home public health orders that flattened the virus infection locally, businesses would show the same level of seriousness in enforcing restrictions that allowed them to open.

“I would really like to repay the community … (so) that they can open,” Child said.

Clapper said that while the Board of Health, which approves and issues public health orders, is solely concerned with health issues, the board of commissioners must take into account that plus other aspects of county life like business and the economy.

“We may end up losing 50 to 75 percent of our local businesses within in this community,” Clapper said. “So we have to look at the bigger, broader picture.”

The two other members of the board, however, urged caution.

“I support being a little more restrictive,” Commissioner George Newman said. “We need to be able to assure people Pitkin County is safe.”

He suggested the Board of Health wait until May 23 to set a date for restaurants, bars and lodging to open. That way there is more time for data to surface that might include a possible spike in COVID-19 cases, Newman said.

McNicholas Kury pointed out that setting a date now “fundamentally undermines” the strategy behind the public health orders, which relies mainly on coronavirus hospital data to determine the current severity of the disease.

“Do we want to undermine that recommendation or not?” she said. “I’m struggling with that.”

The Pitkin County Board of Health, which is appointed by the board of commissioners, has the authority under state law to issue public health orders. Commissioners can only advise the body, though one commissioner — Poschman currently — sits on the board.

On Thursday, the health board likely will talk about when to move into phase 2, and whether that should be May 27 or perhaps around June 6, which is four weeks after the May 8 order goes into effect, Peacock said.

Either date is likely because Pitkin County has not seen many, if any, new positive cases of COVID-19 since the local public health officials began being able to test every symptomatic case April 27, he said.

“That would be an option the data would seem to support,” Peacock said. “We do not see data coming where we’d be on a six-to-eight-week timeframe.”

In order to better prepare local businesses for eventual opening, Pitkin County will host two “Business Virtual Open Houses” on Wednesday from 2 to 4 p.m. and on Friday from 10 to 11 a.m. For more information, go to the Pitkin County Public Health website and for a Zoom link to join the meetings.

The health board also is likely to talk about eliminating a current public health order that requires second-home owners to quarantine for 14 days if they come to Aspen or Pitkin County, Peacock said.

The public health strategy of testing, contact tracing and isolating those who test positive already has the second-home owner population built into the infrastructure Pitkin County is attempting to create, so the quarantine likely isn’t necessary, Peacock said.

Finally, commissioners asked Peacock to come back to them in the next week or two with funding options to pay for the community testing and tracing strategy, which is expected to cost nearly $2 million over 18 months. The strategy aims to test every symptomatic person in the county, then trace their contacts, test those people and isolate anyone who tests positive.

The plan — a tried-and-true but labor-intensive public health strategy — will allow Aspen and Pitkin County to gradually and safely open to tourists and visitors, officials have said.

“We want to try and get the community back to where (businesses can open),” Newman said. “But long term, we want to be sure that Aspen, Pitkin County and Snowmass are going to be safe places to come to because that’s where our business comes from.”

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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