Pitkin County’s communications frustrate Aspen restaurant owners as pandemic guidelines change
Aspen-area restaurant owners expressed frustration Tuesday with local public health officials, who they say have not communicated effectively during the age of COVID-19.
“There’s a real lack of clear communication,” Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s restaurant in downtown Aspen, said during a meeting of restaurant owners and Pitkin County public health leaders. “Your website is woefully inadequate. Trying to find information is a problem.”
Michael Goldberg, owner of Belly Up, asked why local public health department employees can’t simply email local restaurants when dining rules change, as they did last week when the state said tables could have a maximum of 10 people instead of eight.
Jordana Sabella, a county public health manager, said it’s just not that easy.
The state does not communicate with local public health departments like Pitkin County’s very effectively, she said. Public health officials continually lobby state officials to keep them abreast of changes to public health orders to no avail.
Local officials sometimes hear about health order changes from emails sent by local businesses inquiring about changes they’ve heard rumored, Sabella said.
Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said despite talking to state officials multiple times a week in an effort to do what’s right for Aspen and Pitkin County, they still hear about changes through newspaper articles.
“It’s completely infuriating,” she said. “There’s a gap in communication and we struggle with that.”
However, Sabella assured restaurant owners that they can immediately begin following state guidelines for restaurants once the state announces them.
In addition to the increased number of people allowed at tables, restaurant owners also had not heard a new clarification from the state about the use of restaurant bars.
Bar seating has not been allowed if the bars are being used to prepare drinks for customers. The clarification, however, states that restaurants can close off a section of the bar to drink preparation and allow patrons to sit at that section provided they observe 6-foot social distancing guidelines.
Tuesday’s meeting took place in Jimmy’s spacious, second-floor dining room where social distancing and facemask guidelines were observed. It included owners or managers of Acquolina, Ellina, Pinons, Tatanka, Meat and Cheese, Steak House No. 316, Cache Cache and other Aspen restaurants.
Other questions from restaurant owners and managers for health officials concerned their employees. They wanted to know how fast employees could get tested this winter, how to get tests for employees without health insurance and how to obtain benefits for employees who might be forced to miss the only one or two shifts they’re working that week.
If employees are symptomatic, they will need to get a doctor’s referral and obtain a test at Aspen Valley Hospital, Koenemann said. Those without a doctor or who can’t afford a doctor can call Aspen Valley Hospital for a testing referral, she said.
Others who might have been in contact with a person who tested positive for the virus might have to wait three or four days for a test result. But testing still takes time here and across the country, Koenemann said.
“The supply chain is not there for testing,” she said. “It’s frustrating and limiting as to what we can do.”
As for employee benefits, including rent relief, the Aspen Community Foundation is helping on that front, Koenemann said. Public health officials said they would provide restaurant owners and managers with a page listing benefits available to employees.
Koenemann also urged restaurant employees to get a flu shot. Such efforts will cut down on sickness in the community and help eliminate a disease that features similar symptoms as COVID-19, she said.
Finally, restaurant leaders wanted to know why the county can’t screen airport passengers with an eye toward keeping out those with COVID.
Koenemann and Aspen Mayor Torre, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting, pointed out that the county Board of Health has been talking about such action for at least the past month. The upshot to the discussion is that traveler restrictions work best when they come from the state level, so county officials have opted to lobby the state to implement such restrictions, they said.
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