State approves Pitkin County variance; “Phase 2” reopening to start Wednesday

People order from the porch of the Bear Den Aspen on Tuesday, May 5, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Restaurants and lodges in Aspen, Snowmass Village and elsewhere in Pitkin County can reopen their doors Wednesday.

That’s because the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) granted Pitkin County’s request for a variance to the state’s “safer at home” public health order Saturday, according to a county news release sent out Sunday.

The variance, which was submitted to CDPHE on May 18 and includes a multitude of variance requests, will allow Pitkin County to implement phase 2 of its “Roadmap to Reopening” on Wednesday — regardless if it differs from or is less restrictive than the state’s next iteration of the “safer at home” public health order, which is expected to be unveiled Monday.

“We are happy that we can start reopening portions of our tourist-based economy,” said Steve Child, chair of the Pitkin Board of County Commissioners, in a prepared statement.

In its request to CDPHE, Pitkin County chose to pursue a broad set of variances from the state public health order that would give flexibility in implementing its “Roadmap to Reopening,” a three-phase strategy informed by local data about the spread and impacts of COVID-19. 

Now that the variances have been approved, Pitkin County’s public health order will be amended effective Wednesday to allow the following:

• Lodging will be allowed to open at 50% capacity with a COVID-19 safety plan to include sector-specific guidance.

• Restaurants will be allowed to open, but indoor seating capacity should be limited by physical distancing requirements or 50% of facility capacity, whichever is more restrictive. The 50% seating capacity only applies to indoor seating and not to outdoor seating, which must meet physical distancing requirements (tables of eight and at least 6 feet apart).

• A maximum group/event size of 50 was approved in the variance. Gatherings more than 10 people must be a county- or municipality-permitted event with a COVID-19 safety plan. Informal gatherings (house parties, etc.) will remain limited to 10 or fewer. There is a preference for outdoor events, and a limit of 50% of facility capacity for indoor events/gatherings. 

The current mandatory face mask requirement within Pitkin County will remain in place during phase 2, the news release states. 

Karen Koenemann, Pitkin County public health director, said county and public health officials have been working closely with lodging, restaurant and events task forces to devise sector-based COVID-19 safety plans over the past several weeks. 

This means individual businesses will be asked to follow the task force-established plans relevant to their business-type, versus having to submit and gain specific approval of their own plans, Koenemann said. 

The sector-specific business plans will be polished and posted on the county website by Tuesday, Koenemann said, though she noted many business owners and leaders have been involved in the process and should not be surprised by the COVID-19 safety plans released. 

“In general, these plans have been in the works for a while,” Koenemann said Sunday. “For both restaurants and lodging, we have most of the requirements decided but want to incorporate some of the state’s guidance, which should be finalized (Monday).” 

As for special events, Koenemann said she anticipates a process similar to what was put in place for restarting county construction projects in April, going through each county municipality’s permitting process for event-by-event safety plan approval. More specifics on this process will be in place before Wednesday, too, she said. 

On top of approving the requested lodging, restaurant, and events variances, CDPHE also granted Pitkin County its requested variances for places of worship, movie theaters, transportation, outdoor recreation and gyms. 

However, Koenemann said additional task forces for arts and theater, faith-based organizations/places of worship, indoor recreation/gyms and transportation need to be created and to convene with county and public health officials to outline safety plans before their “new normal,” in-person operations can resume. 

While much of the county’s requested variances were approved, some were not: CDPHE did not approve the opening of bars, concert halls and music venues in Pitkin County. 

Koenemann said state public health officials did not give a reason for denying these variance requests, but she feels it has to do with the COVID-19 transmission risk factors associated with those settings. For example, Koenemann said people are usually in closer proximity with each other in bars and music venues, and social distancing is harder to implement. 

She also referred to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on May 13 that found loud speaking can emit thousands of oral fluid droplets per second, which can then remain in the air of a “closed, stagnant environment” for 8 to 14 minutes. 

“My gut feeling is these places weren’t approved because of the nature of what happens in those facilities,” Koenemann said. “There’s singing, talking loudly and close interactions, which increases risk of (coronavirus) transmission.” 

In CDPHE’s variance approval letter and sent to county commissioners Saturday, Pitkin County’s current low prevalence of COVID-19 was acknowledged, with only two of the county’s 57 confirmed COVID-19 cases to date having occurred in the past two weeks. However, if the county was to exceed 18 new COVID-19 cases in a week, excluding outbreak-associated cases in the senior care center, the approved variance would automatically be rescinded, the CDPHE letter states. 

If Pitkin County continues to see low case numbers, the letter says the approved variance will be in effect until the final expiration of the state’s current public health order, which “will be extended in some capacity” this week. 

The continued tracking of local COVID-19 case numbers and transmission data is the key to informing how the county continues forward through its three-phase Roadmap to Reopening and to getting things “to the new normal,” Koenemann said.

But she emphasized that local data isn’t just numbers; it’s a reflection of the community and the continued actions residents take to limit the spread of COVID-19, which she says will make all the difference. 

“What decisions and choices we all make over the next few weeks will really impact what happens in our community,” Koenemann said.

She encouraged residents to follow the county’s “Five Commitments of Containment”: maintain 6 feet of social distance, wash hands often, cover your face in public, stay at home if you’re sick and get tested immediately if you have symptoms. 

“These five commitments don’t seem like that big of a deal but they really are critical,” she said. “We’re protecting others as well as ourselves when we stay true to those commitments, which will allow us to get to the new normal faster.”

CDPHE also approved variances for Garfield County Saturday allowing churches, gyms and restaurants to open at half-capacity.

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