State mulls harsher ‘red-orange zone’ for Pitkin County, others |

State mulls harsher ‘red-orange zone’ for Pitkin County, others

A motorist waits for a swab test at a drive-in, COVID-19 testing site Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020, in Federal Heights, Colo.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

You know those harsher restrictions the state of Colorado was set to impose Wednesday on Pitkin County? Probably not happening.

Instead, with case levels soaring higher than they’ve ever been in Aspen and across the county, the state is considering even harsher restrictions beginning Friday that are likely to hit restaurants hard and include a curfew, officials said Monday.

“We’re on the wrong path,” Mike Kaplan, CEO of Aspen Skiing Co., said during a virtual meeting with members of the business community Monday. “Man, we’ve got to do more … if we’re going to save Christmas (and) if we’re going to get open and stay open.”

The comments echoed a message Kaplan released Sunday, in which he noted that the company’s winter operating plan has been submitted to the state and that both snowmaking and natural snow are accumulating nicely for a projected Thanksgiving Day opening at Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.

“One problem: COVID is spreading like wildfire across our community,” Kaplan wrote in the message posted on Skico’s website. “We all knew that a second wave was coming, but the momentum it picked up in the offseason is surprising.

“It’s putting what we all worked so hard to accomplish — a safe and long-lasting ski season — in jeopardy.”

The state was set to move Pitkin County from “yellow” restrictions to “orange” restrictions Wednesday, which would have meant that most businesses would have had to move to 25% capacity from 50% capacity.

But that all changed Monday morning during a conference call between Pitkin County public health officials and their counterparts at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“There has been some late-breaking information that’s important for all of us to consider,” Peacock said at the start of Monday’s early afternoon call hosted by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, Snowmass Tourism and Skico.

State officials are considering making changes to the COVID-19 Dial, which features a hierarchy of restrictions with gradually ascending levels that impose increasingly stricter restrictions on counties in Colorado based on three COVID-19 metrics, he said. The state is talking about creating a new level between the “orange” and the “red” levels on the dial that would allow communities a final chance to bring virus transmission rates under control before the “red” stay-at-home, lockdown level is imposed, Peacock said.

If the state decides to create that level — which Snowmass Village Mayor Markey Butler called the “red-orange zone” on Monday — it will impose a set of new restrictions still being worked out, he said. However, state public health officials outlined Monday what those restrictions might look like. First, restaurants won’t be allowed to host indoor dining, Peacock said, though they will be allowed outdoor dining and take-out. Next, an 8 p.m. curfew may be instituted, though the parameters of that curfew were unclear Monday, he said.

Large, indoor events would be prohibited, while outdoor events would be limited to 25% capacity or a maximum of 75 people, Peacock said.

Butler, who participated in Monday’s call with state health department officials, said they also brought up reducing gym capacity from the current 25% to 10%. The maximum number of people allowed at informal gatherings is likely to remain at five people from no more than two households, she said.

Changing lodging capacities was not discussed, Butler said.

Retail stores won’t feel the restrictions nearly as badly and, in fact, may come out in a better situation, Peacock and Butler said. That’s because the new level restrictions envision retail capacity remaining at 50%, which would be an increase from 25% under the “orange” level restrictions that were set to go into effect Wednesday, they said.

The prevailing retail logic is that people are unlikely to be socializing without masks while shopping, Butler said, so why not allow that part of the economy to continue.

“People here as guests can get out and spend money,” she said.

Pitkin County officials should know by Tuesday or Wednesday if the state will create the new level and impose the new restrictions here and in a number of counties in the area and across the state that have turned red in recent weeks, Peacock said. They would take effect Friday and last 30 days until Dec. 20 to take into account transmission of two generations of the virus.

“North of 75%,” Butler said when asked how likely she thinks it is the state will impose the new restrictions. Peacock agreed with her assessment.

Even if the restrictions are imposed, Kaplan said they aren’t likely to push back the Thanksgiving Day opening dates for Aspen Mountain and Snowmass.

“We don’t believe it affects the opening,” he said in an interview after Monday’s meeting. “We keep hearing and seeing that the spread is not happening from recreation. It’s not really happening from tourism. We plan to continue opening on Thanksgiving Day.”

Kaplan pointed out another disturbing piece of the skyrocketing COVID-19 infection trend in Pitkin County: It’s happening in the offseason. He urged local residents to “double down” on mitigation efforts like social distancing, wearing face masks and getting tested when virus symptoms arise to save Aspen’s economy.

“We don’t really have any visitors here,” Kaplan said. “(The increasing spread) is us. All of us who live here and work here — we all need to do our part.”

That message appears to be getting lost amid a bout of pandemic fatigue that has seen infection numbers in Pitkin County increase daily since the beginning of November.

On Friday, the county reported the highest number of positive cases in a day since the pandemic began in March, when 19 residents tested positive for COVID-19, according to Karen Koenemann, county public health director, and local epidemiological data.

That triggered a massive case investigation and contact tracing effort that saw Aspen Valley Hospital and community partners set up a drive-thru testing site Monday at Aspen High School mainly for those newly identified contacts referred by public health, said Dave Ressler, the hospital’s CEO. As many as 100 people may have been tested Monday at that site and others, he said. Investigators identified 196 people over the weekend who were exposed to those who tested positive.

As of Monday, 436 people were in quarantine in Pitkin County, with 48 others in isolation, according to the local data.

“We clearly have significant community transmission, as do our surrounding counties,” Ressler said. “We’re seeing that manifest itself in the form of testing and contact tracing.”

The county has recorded 86 positive COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, according to the local data, and 378 total cases since March. Thirty-three of those 86 cases came through community transmission, meaning those who tested positive don’t know how they were exposed. The county has logged 15 “out of jurisdiction” cases since Nov. 2, which includes people who test positive here but are from somewhere outside the county.

Pitkin County’s incidence rate — which is based on population — has been rapidly rising since Nov. 1 and stood at a 484 average over the past 14 days, according to the data. Going by the state’s current COVID-19 Dial, an incidence rate of more than 350 would land a county in the red, or lockdown, zone. Pitkin County’s weekend incidence rate was 478 on Friday, 501 on Saturday and 506 on Sunday, according to the data.

The county’s positivity rate also has increased throughout November and stood at 7.2% on Monday. Public health officials want to keep that number below 5%, which ensures enough testing is being done in the community.

The positivity rate in children — 9.9% — was even higher, according to the local data, with 11 COVID-19 juvenile cases reported in the past two weeks. The county has only recorded 27 total cases among children since the pandemic began, according to the local epidemiological data.

No one was hospitalized at AVH with the coronavirus Monday, though eight health care workers were out with COVID-19-like symptoms, according to the local data.

Pitkin County won’t be the only county placed under the new restrictions if they are indeed implemented, Peacock said. A majority of counties in Colorado had fallen under the “red” level restrictions as of Monday, according to state epidemiological data, with Summit County reporting a massive 1,087.7 incidence rate.

Public health officials have chiefly blamed informal gatherings for causing a majority of the positive cases in the county. On Monday’s ACRA call, some business leaders criticized local residents who ignore the five-person, two-household rule, and called for police to crack down on them.

Rose Abello, Snowmass Village tourism director, had another suggestion, however.

“Can we push the enforcement to ourselves (and) to our businesses?” she asked. “Time is so critical. What will the economy do if we lose the most lucrative weeks of our year?”

That idea was echoed by her colleague Virginia McNellis, Snowmass marketing director, who urged employers to take the lead in pushing employees and other residents to toe the line when it comes to distancing, gatherings and other mitigation measures.

“We all have something to lose if business goes south in the next two months,” she said.

Peacock said that while Pitkin County’s numbers are high, they are not insurmountable.

“We can still save our winter,” he said. “We can still save our Christmas season. We’ve got a real chance to bring these numbers back down.”

Kaplan agreed.

“I’m still optimistic,” he said. “I’m realistically optimistic.”

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