Restrictions go nearly Red as Pitkin County COVID numbers skyrocket

“Orange-plus-plus” status starts Tuesday and includes new limits on gatherings, business capacity, lodging rules

Skiers get in the queue for the Elk Camp gondola in Snowmass on Dec. 21, 2020.

With local cases of COVID-19 at an “astronomical” level, Pitkin County will voluntarily move to Red level restrictions for nearly all sectors starting Tuesday.

The only two exceptions to the Red level will be restaurants — which will be allowed to operate at current 25% indoor capacity with a 9:30 p.m. last call and hard close at 10 p.m. — and indoor events that followed the rules and submitted safety plans by Sunday.

The county’s request last week to extend last call in Aspen to 11 p.m. during the two-week period around Christmas was denied by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director Jill Hunsacker Ryan, said Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim public health director. With a skyrocketing incidence rate, the county should implement more restrictions, not less, according to Ryan’s letter to the county.

“Our Orange-plus (level restrictions implemented a month ago) have not worked to bring our incidence rate down,” Sabella said Monday during a hastily called meeting of the Pitkin County Board of Health. “It continues to grow at an exponential rate and that is concerning.”

Members of the board of health debated whether to impose the gamut of Red level restrictions, though they decided against doing so by a razor-thin 4-3 vote. While there was concern about restaurants being able to make money, most felt that closing them during the holiday period would only force people into private social gatherings that have shown to be particularly virulent in spreading COVID-19.

Instead, the board adopted what some termed “Orange-plus-plus” level restrictions, which are mainly Red.

That means beginning Tuesday, no indoor personal gatherings will be allowed in Pitkin County at all. Residents and visitors alike will only be able to socialize with members of their own household, which will apply to local restaurant tables and lodging situations.

Indoor events will be canceled, except for the seven events already permitted by Pitkin County Public Health through Jan. 4. That number is suspiciously low for this time of year, leading Sabella to say she suspects that many planned gatherings were not filing safety plans. Board members decided to reward those who followed the rules.

Outdoor events will be allowed to continue at 25% capacity or a maximum of 60 people.

Those events will not include Aspen’s traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks display, which Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins said was canceled. The city council felt the fireworks would only encourage people to gather, she said.

Officials in Snowmass Village said Monday they are planning fireworks shows from Fanny Hill at 6 p.m. Christmas Day and on New Year’s Eve (time to be announced later). Snowmass Tourism director Rose Abello said Monday night the message is for people to watch from their condos, with 95% of the units situated slopeside, officials won’t be promoting it as a gathering but rather watching from where they are.

Under Pitkin County’s new rules, retail businesses will be allowed to continue to operate at 50% capacity, but gyms and offices must cap their numbers at 10% of capacity starting Tuesday.

Schools and ski operations will not be affected by the new public health order. Real estate showings and open houses can continue, though only one household is allowed on the property at the same time.

Monday’s board of health meeting was scheduled for an hour and lasted for two-and-a-half as members debated how strong the new restrictions should be.

As of Monday, Pitkin County’s incidence rate — which is measured based on a standard population of 100,000 — was 1,441. On Dec.10, that rate stood at 991, according to local epidemiology data.

As a comparison, the maximum incidence rate allowed for the state of Colorado’s Red level restrictions is 350. The rate only measures positive cases from Pitkin County residents. Positives from those who live outside the county were at about 9% of all positives, which is lower than it’s been previously, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist.

“We have not seen an uptick in the number of tourist cases,” he said.

The overall number of cases, however, is growing rapidly, Sabella said.

Pitkin County logged 58 new COVID-19 cases Friday, she said, which is by far the highest daily number since the pandemic began. In fact, 50% of the total 846 positive cases in Pitkin County since March 1 have come in the last month, while 28% — 256 cases — have come in the last two weeks, she said.

“It’s an astronomical incidence rate and it’s growing exponentially,” Sabella said.

The county’s third COVID-related death was reported this weekend.

Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, said the increased case numbers are partially the result of Thanksgiving gatherings. He said public health officials are bracing themselves for what happens in the next two weeks with Christmas and New Year’s Eve parties.

Red level restrictions have been shown to work, and have lowered transmission rates in counties where they’ve been implemented, Sabella said.

Three of the doctors associated the health board cited those numbers in urging members to adopt Red level restrictions without exception.

“I need to remind the board that this is exponential growth,” said Dr. Jeannie Seybold, a health board member. “I feel at this point we really need to stop this virus … before it is truly out of control.”

Dr. Kim Levin, the county’s medical officer who was on her way to a shift at Aspen Valley Hospital’s emergency room, and Dr. Christa Geiszl, a board alternate, also urged board members to heed the warnings by public health officials and impose Red level restrictions.

“The numbers are increasing in a way that’s scaring me,” Geiszl said.

Dr. Tom Kurt, however, initially proposed implementing the Red level restrictions but exempting restaurants from them. He said restaurants “have been suffering terribly” and closing them would only encourage people to gather in private settings.

Commissioner Patti Clapper, also an alternate member of the health board, warned about “unintended consequences” of imposing Red restrictions, including the health and well-being of laid-off restaurant workers, and increased stress that could manifest itself in drug and alcohol use and domestic violence.

“We need to look at the broader picture,” Clapper said.

The state will move the county into Red involuntarily if one of two other metrics rises to Red level thresholds — the positivity rate and the hospitalization rate. That happens if the positivity rate hits 15% or three people are hospitalized in one day.

Thanks to recent added testing capability, the county’s positivity rate, which was at 8% on Monday, remains in Yellow levels, Sabella said. The hospitalization rate also remains comfortable, with all intensive care unit beds available and no one hospitalized with COVID-19, said Dave Ressler, CEO at Aspen Valley Hospital.

Hospital employees misreported data over the weekend, Ressler said, and instead of reporting all ICU beds available reported that none were available. The mistake has been corrected and reported to the state, he said.

The problem area Monday at AVH was the number of hospital staff out with COVID-19 or under quarantine because of contact with a person who tested positive, Ressler said.

Another problem Monday was rapidly filling hospital beds in the area, with St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction currently unable to accept patients, he said. If AVH needs to transfer a COVID-19 patient, officials would have to look to Denver.

Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs did have COVID-19 patients as of Monday, but still had capacity, Ressler said.

It’s not clear why AVH isn’t experiencing a rise in hospitalizations like our neighbors, he said.

“There’s some sense that the most vulnerable (county residents) are keeping themselves safe,” Ressler said. “Beyond that, we expect we will be affected by the virus.”

The health board will meet again the first week of January, when board Chairwoman Markey Butler warned there could be further consequences if virus case numbers don’t improve.

“Come Jan. 4, if we do not show improvement, we’re gonna go Red,” she said.


Pitkin County’s new restrictions under new Public Health Order, which begins Tuesday:

Personal gatherings: Sizes are reduced to zero. Only congregate with your own household. This applies to all lodging reservations and accommodations.

Restaurants: permitted to operate at 25% occupancy with 9:30 p.m. last call and 10 p.m. closure. Restaurants only seat groups of same households

Group camps: Virtual or outdoors no more than 10.

Critical and non-critical retail: 50% capacity with curbside pickup encouraged

Personal services: 25% capacity up to 25 people

Office: 10% capacity

Gyms: 10% capacity up to 10 people per room. Reservations required.

Indoor events: None as of Dec. 20. No additional indoor Event Safety Plans will be accepted. Indoor Events with an ESP submitted as of Dec. 20 are permitted. ESP’s submitted after Dec. 20 for Indoor Events will not be permitted.

Outdoor events: still permitted at 25% capacity or 60 people

Outdoor guided services: 25% capacity up to 10 people

Traveler Affidavit: All persons traveling, including residents, are required to complete the Traveler Affidavit (including testing and quarantine requirements) if they have been gone from Pitkin County for more than 10 days.

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