Pitkin County cautious amid flurry of facemask rollbacks
Whether local, state or federal, the facemask announcements came flying at a fast and furious pace at the end of this week.
First, on Thursday came news from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that fully vaccinated Americans could chuck the ubiquitous facemask, both outdoors and indoors, that everyone’s gotten used to wearing during the last year, and deep-six the social distancing. Some exceptions apply – most notably public travel – but the announcement felt like a long time coming.
On Friday, Gov. Jared Polis ended statewide mandates in favor of facemask “suggestions.” Sandwiched in between those announcements, Pitkin County’s Board of Health on Thursday afternoon took a more cautious approach, though it also contained exceptions for the vaccinated.
On the advice of local public health staff, board members adopted facemask rules in effect at least until the health board’s next meeting in June. They include mandatory face coverings in Pitkin County for everyone over the age of 2 in indoor public settings and public transportation.
However, businesses and events can allow people at indoor settings to remove masks if they require 80% of guests to show proof of vaccination, while the other 20% must provide a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours. Businesses are responsible for tracking customers’ vaccination status.
Local public health officials will continue to track and isolate positive COVID-19 cases, conduct contact tracing investigations and quarantine unvaccinated close contacts. But that is the extent of local COVID-19-related restrictions as of May 28. All other restrictions imposed by various color-coded COVID Dials become recommendations as of that date, including limits on restaurant capacity.
Dr. Kim Levin, Pitkin County’s chief medical officer and a physician at Aspen Valley Hospital, called the CDC announcement “huge” and a powerful enticement for those on the fence about vaccinations.
“It’s an incredible incentive to get vaccinated,” she said Friday. “I think it’s fantastic news. I think it gives us hope … to end this pandemic.”
And while she acknowledged that having facemask rules that changed from county to county and sometimes business to business can be challenging, it’s been a fact of life during the entire pandemic.
“The clear message is that in Pitkin County, this is what we’re doing,” Levin said.
Aspen’s city council allowed the town’s general outdoor mask zone mandate to expire May 1, though it extended the facemask requirement for indoor public places until June 7. The Basalt Town Council’s indoor facemask requirement has been extended until June 8, though the council could choose to reconsider that decision when it next meets May 25, said Ryan Mahoney, town manager.
In late April, Snowmass Village’s Town Council extended its indoor and outdoor mask mandates at Base Village, the Snowmass Center and the Snowmass Mall until June 7. Finally, Eagle County announced Friday that it would lift all COVID-19-related public health orders May 19, a week earlier that previously scheduled.
In his announcement Friday, Polis suggested – but pointedly did not order – that unvaccinated residents continue to wear a facemask indoors. Or, “even more importantly – get vaccinated,” he said.
The statement underscored the fact that vaccines have been effective, and that most of the risk from COVID -19 now is to unvaccinated people.
The most recent data shows that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are 90-to-94% effective in eliminating symptomatic infections and have significantly decrease hospitalizations, said Dr. Brad Holmes, a physician at Aspen Valley Hospital.
“Not all vaccines are that good,” he said. “(The high percentages mean) that if you’re fully vaccinated, it’s pretty unlikely you’re going to get or transmit the virus. So, a fully vaccinated person – whether they interact with an unvaccinated person or not – you’re pretty safe.”
Still, he said the decision to mandate facemasks indoors in Pitkin County is responsible, especially considering the number of visitors to the area.
“If I’m in an unknown situation myself, I still would wear a mask and I would recommend that my friends wear one too,” Holmes said Friday. “It’s safer to wear a mask indoors for everybody.”
Both Levin and Holmes urged people who are not yet vaccinated to do so. Go to https://covid19.pitkincounty.com/ and click on “Get Vaccinated” to find out how and where local vaccinations are available.
“Vaccines are the key to ending this pandemic, or at least controlling it,” Levin said.