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Pitkin County’s conservative approach pays off

Two friends take a stroll on Rio Grande Trail wearing masks in Aspen on Tuesday, April 21, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Pitkin County received some good COVID-related news Wednesday from the state of Colorado.

The state’s public health department will not require the county to roll back COVID-19-related rules governing restaurants, lodging and other sectors of the economy because officials here were hesitant in implementing a variance granted by the state two months ago, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said.

“The state is not requiring a mitigation plan,” he said. “We were very conservative in implementing (the variance). That’s why we did things the way we did.

“It’s put us in a good position now.”

However, county public health officials remain concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County — six more were reported Tuesday evening — and they want to make sure they stay on top of the spread of the virus, he said.

To that end, members of the county Board of Health will consider tightening certain requirements — like reducing informal group size limits — when they meet Thursday afternoon, Peacock said.

“Based on where our public health order is now, even if the variance was yanked (by the state), it wouldn’t make a significant difference because we are as restrictive or more restrictive than the state right now,” Peacock said. “That may be the important point.”

The Pitkin County Board of Health is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Thursday and will discuss, among other things, whether to reduce the current 50-person limit on informal social gatherings, he said. Public health officials have said such gatherings are the source of some infections in the county.

Health board members also will talk about further tightening facemask requirements, he said. That discussion will include whether to eliminate part of the facemask rule stating that people must wear a mask outside if they stop and talk to someone not in their household within less than 6 feet for more than 10 minutes.

The board could decide to eliminate the 10-minute rule and simply state that if a person stops to talk to a person not of their household, they must mask up, according to statements made Tuesday by Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann.

The tightening of local facemask rules goes hand-in-hand with possible plans by the Aspen City Council to establish a “facemask zone” in Aspen’s downtown commercial core and beyond that would require people to wear masks outdoors at all times.

Finally, the health board will talk about pushing Gov. Jared Polis and other state officials to establish specific statewide guidance on COVID-related rules so that regulations don’t change when tourists cross the border from, say, Pitkin County to Eagle County or from Garfield County to Mesa County, Peacock said. One of the proposals the board may advocate is requiring Colorado visitors to be symptom-free for 10 days before traveling here or perhaps establishing restrictions on travelers from virus hot spots, he said.

“We’re trying to be as consistent as we can,” Peacock said.

When the state of Colorado granted Pitkin County’s variance to the state public health order in late May, it allowed restaurants here to open at 50% and lodging at 100%. It also allowed a slew of other sectors to open as well, and even included a cap of 175 people at informal social gatherings, he said.

Unlike some counties, Pitkin County chose to implement that variance in stages in order to both keep an eye on local viral infection rates and to develop guidelines for those sectors, like gyms and museums, that took time. Some portions of the variance, like the maximum informal gathering size, were never implemented.

That strategy appears to have paid off for Pitkin County. Others, including Eagle and Garfield counties, are likely to have to come up with virus mitigation strategies for the state in order to keep their variances.

In the meantime, Pitkin County officials are continuing to work on a document that outlines a rollback strategy in the event COVID-19 infections spike, Peacock said. That document will include specific numbers and metrics that will trigger a rollback, and what any rollback will look like to local businesses and services, he said.

The document is not yet publicly available, Peacock said.

jauslander@aspentimes.com


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