Some visitors swearing off Aspen due to affidavit launch

Many lodges seeing more cancellations than they are bookings, local tourism official says

Pitkin County’s traveler affidavit program appears to be getting a mixed reaction through a spate of recent vacation cancellations and national exposure that the Aspen area is a safe place to visit.

Public confusion over the program, announced by Pitkin County the first week of December, has prompted a number of would-be guests to shelf their plans to visit Aspen over the upcoming holidays, Debbie Braun, president of Aspen Chamber Resort Association, told the Pitkin County Board of Health during its virtual meeting Thursday.

It also has local decision-makers considering putting on their best PR face for the program by emphasizing its benefits.

“We should become more attractive to visit because we’re guaranteeing a safe visit,” said Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins, also a health board member, noting, “We need to change the messaging going out there.”

The holidays, usually one of the year’s busiest times in Aspen, aren’t looking good for business, Braun said.

“The phones are ringing with people not understanding the affidavit and not knowing if we are going to stay in Orange-plus (level restrictions) or go to Red,” Braun said in the meeting. “Many of the lodges right now are seeing more cancellations than they are seeing bookings as we’re moving forward.”

The health board decided to keep the county in Orange-plus. Either way, lodges can stay open and are not bound to the state COVID-19 dial’s color-code capacity restrictions.

“While I know there’s not a cap on lodging, by nowhere are we anywhere near where we would normally be,” Braun said.

The county announced earlier this month that starting Monday, visitors would be required to sign an online affidavit stating they received a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival and were free of symptoms 10 days before leaving.

That’s why the W Hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain lost $70,000 in canceled bookings in the 36 hours leading up to Thursday’s 4 p.m. meeting, the lodge’s general manager Greg Durrer relayed through County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who sits on the board of health.

Poschman, however, did not appear convinced the affidavits alone are fueling the cancellations. A public mindful of the risks associated with traveling also could be a contributor, along with a lack of snow.

“We know there are cancellations across the entire industry, because people are taking scientists’ and doctors’ advice that maybe this isn’t a good time to go” take a trip or vacation, he said.

Poschman also wasn’t persuaded that the inconvenience of completing an affidavit is repelling visitors.

“If people are canceling because of the hassle of filling out and affidavit, something is amiss here,” he said.

An amped-up PR campaign pushing a healthy vacation in Aspen-Snowmass, some of which already is underway, could reverse the trend of cancellations, some board members said.

“If we create a healthier community, we’ll have healthier guests come visit us,” Pitkin County Commissioner Patti Clapper said.

Added board member Markey Butler: “This is not punitive. This is to take care of folks to make sure they have a safe and happy holidays.”

The affidavit program is voluntary and based on an honor system, said County Manager Jon Peacock.

“If necessary, it will be enforced through public health orders and if necessary, with the use of law enforcement,” he said.

The program’s soft launch, which began Dec. 3, had drawn 500 submitted affidavit through Thursday, officials said.

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