Pitkin County returns to mandatory indoor mask public health order starting Thursday
Businesses can apply next month for exemption if they have vaccination policy in place
Face masks will be required in all indoor public settings in Pitkin County for everyone 2 years old and older regardless of vaccination status beginning Thursday, county public health authorities said Wednesday.
Businesses or facilities that choose to implement a mandatory vaccination policy for employees and guests can receive an exemption to the indoor mask order if approved as a fully vaccinated facility by the Pitkin County Public Health Department.
The order, which goes into effect at 12:01 a.m Thursday, does not apply to private homes.
“By adopting an indoor mask order now, we can preserve our health care system resources, protect the health of our community and have the best chance at preventing hugely impactful capacity and social distancing restrictions in the future,” Jordana Sabella, county public health director, said in a news release.
For those who might view the mask mandate — coming after the JAS Labor Day concerts in Snowmass and the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen — as punishing locals now that the tourists have mostly gone, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock pointed out that officials have been “telegraphing” the possibility of a mask mandate since mid-summer.
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“Masks are not punishment,” he said in a news conference Wednesday afternoon. “They’re protection. They’re mandates in place to protect our local community. It starts with a mask.”
During its monthly meeting last week, the Pitkin County Board of Health directed Sabella to draft an indoor mask order for public spaces by this week if COVID-19 case counts didn’t decrease. They have not, and in fact have increased in the past seven days.
“We didn’t expect … anything precipitous to change,” Dave Ressler, Aspen Valley Hospital CEO, said Wednesday at the media briefing. “We haven’t seen a significant change.”
Pitkin County’s incidence rate hit 298 per 100,000 people on Monday — nearly three times the transmission rate the Centers for Disease Control considers “high” and the highest so far of the delta wave of cases, according to online Pitkin County COVID-19 statistics dashboards. The rate was back down to 276 Tuesday, though that equals the highest rate in the past two weeks.
The county has has 61 new cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days, which included 49 residents and 12 out of county cases, according to the online dashboards. The daily number of new cases in the county has hovered between about 40 and 50 for residents in the past two weeks, while the number of out of county cases has stayed roughly between 10 and 15 per day during the same time period.
The latest COVID-19-related death occurred over the weekend at Aspen Valley Hospital, when an elderly, fully vaccinated person died, sources have said. A total of five Pitkin County residents have died form the virus since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Despite the death of a fully vaccinated person, public health officials continued to urge people to get the vaccines, which they stress offer the best protection against serious illness, hospitalization and death.
The health board’s action a week ago also came on the heels of AVH deciding to move from “comfortable” to “cautious” for the first time in months. As of Wednesday, the cautious designation remained in place, with between six and 10 essential health care workers out with COVID-like symptoms, between six and 10 average daily visits by COVID patients and 25% to 50% inpatient hospital capacity and transfer capacity.
Public health and AVH officials decided to remain at the cautious level during a meeting Wednesday, Sabella and Ressler said. A main part of that decision was the fact that it’s becoming harder to transfer COVID-19 patients who need a higher level of care to hospitals in Denver and Grand Junction, Sabella said.
As of Friday, just 12% of ICU beds were available across the state, Ressler said.
“Clearly, capacity issues at a system level are significant,” he said, noting that though AVH was able to transfer a patient this weekend he remained worried about those capacity issues.
On Wednesday, one of AVH’s four ICU beds was occupied by a COVID-19 patient, while another was occupied by a non-COVID patient, Ressler said.
The CDC has recommended universal indoor masking since July 27, when it warned that the COVID-19 delta variant was twice as contagious as the alpha variant. Pitkin County Public Health officials seconded that advice, though indoor mask wearing was spotty at best in Aspen and throughout the county and state.
Pitkin County becomes the fourth county in Colorado to implement an indoor mask mandate, behind Boulder, San Juan and San Miguel counties, after Gov. Jared Polis lifted a statewide indoor mask mandate in May.
In Pitkin County, the new order will require masks indoors during periods of high and substantial transmission. Once the rate drops to moderate or low levels for 21 consecutive days, the mask requirement will automatically return to a recommendation. Should cases rise to substantial or high transmission levels again for five consecutive days, the mask requirement again would go back into effect until the transmission level drops again, according to the news release.
High transmission means an incidence rate of 100 or more cases per 100,000 population, while substantial transmission is considered to be occurring when the rate lands between 50 and 99 cases, according to CDC guidelines. Moderate transmission is defined as an incidence rate of between 10 and 49 cases, and low transmission occurs when 10 or fewer cases per 100,000 population are detected.
Masks will be required on public transportation, in public and private offices, retail stores, restaurants, bars, event centers, gyms, recreations centers and any other indoor space that allows the general public, the county said. Masks are not required anywhere outdoors.
“Public Health also recommends that businesses and facilities move activities outdoors whenever possible, or increase ventilation by opening windows and doors, running the HVAC or installing portable air filters,” the release states. “Only second to vaccination, adoption of an indoor mask order is an extremely effective tool to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and set a universal expectation for mask wearing throughout the community.”
Businesses and facilities that want to implement a mandatory vaccination policy for employees and guests or customers so indoor masks are not required can begin applying to the Pitkin County Public Health Department on Oct. 11. Further details are pending.
“This is a voluntary program that allows businesses to develop their own policies to encourage and require vaccinations while meeting their specific demographic, community and business needs,” according to the release. “All businesses must receive explicit approval as an Approved Fully Vaccinated Facility by Pitkin County Public Health.”
At Wednesday’s media briefing, Sabella said the Public Health Department would not be collecting vaccine information for employees of businesses that apply for the program. They will, however, look for a detailed policy on how that information is being communicated, collected and safely stored, she said. Sabella suggested businesses consult with legal counsel to come up with the best individual plan.
Exact criteria about the program will be posted on Pitkin County’s COVID-19 website in the coming weeks, she said. Businesses will be able to apply for the program online.
Businesses or facilities that already require guests and employees to provide proof of vaccination and plan to continue that policy can contact email@example.com to obtain an exception to the mask order.
Further information about the mask order can be found at covid19.pitkincounty.com/mask-recommendations/#details.
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As a mask mandate is reinstated in Pitkin County, Aspen’s elected officials signal the importance of what wearing a facial covering means.