Total Pitkin County shutdown a possibility at Monday meeting

Board of Health members have 3 options; restaurants, schools topic of latest meeting

COVID-19 is running rampant in Aspen and Pitkin County — unlike its neighbors — and members of the Pitkin County Board of Health knew Thursday that something needed to be done about it.

They just weren’t sure what.

“I need time to digest this,” Board Chairwoman Markey Butler said. “It’s really sad to see what’s going on.”

Decision time, instead, will come during a special meeting set for 1 p.m. Monday, during which members will consider three basic options — including a short-term, total shut-down — to try to lasso control of the virus in Aspen and Pitkin County. Public comment will be taken at the virtual meeting with a link to be posted soon on the county’s COVID-19 website.

Butler and county officials initially gave themselves a week until another meeting and a decision, but some members of the board felt that was too much time.

“A week is too long,” said Dr. Christa Gieszl, a board alternate. “I think time is of the essence. Our kids need to be thought of in this conversation.”

At Pitkin County’s current infection rate, waiting until Jan. 14 will mean 200 more positive COVID-19 cases, Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, told board members.

“That shows the cost of delay,” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, also a health board member, who pushed for Monday’s special meeting.

One option on the table Monday will be a staff recommendation to move fully into the state’s Red level restrictions, which would close indoor dining and cancel the few indoor events still pending and permitted. Most every other sector in Pitkin County has been operating under Red level restrictions as part of “Orange-plus-plus” level restrictions adopted by the board of health a few days before Christmas.

Public health staff members have proposed a specific set of metrics that would move the county into Red, and back out again.

However, that may not be enough to rein in a local incidence rate that is second-highest in the state and rising. So, stronger options that might lock-down the community for a shorter period than Red level restrictions are expected to last will be considered as well.

Colorado’s Purple level restrictions, classified as an “extreme risk, stay at home” order, will be one of those options.

Under Purple, indoor and outdoor dining at restaurants would be closed, but takeout allowed, while offices, gyms (outdoor or virtual allowed) and personal services all would close. Indoor and outdoor events would be prohibited and non-critical retail would be allowed, but for only curbside pickup and delivery. Critical retail could still operate at 50% capacity, though outlets would have to make every effort to reduce the number of people in the store at any one time, according to state guidelines.

Hotels are considered critical infrastructure and could continue to operate without capacity restrictions, while child care facilities would remain open and school districts would be able to make their own decisions about in-person, remote or hybrid learning, according to Purple restrictions.

Finally, the third option in front of the board of health Monday will be to review the restrictions Pitkin County imposed in March at the beginning of the pandemic. Residents may recall that period as an even stricter shutdown, with all hotels, lodges and short-term rentals forbidden, with only critical retail allowed.

“I think it’s our job as the county to get the incidence rate under control,” Gieszl said.

Aspen City Councilwoman Ann Mullins, also a board alternate, agreed.

“It’s important to do something sooner rather than later,” she said. “I certainly feel very strongly that we need to get the hammer down on this thing.”

Pitkin County’s incidence rate — based on a population of 100,000 residents — is the problem, and has been since mid-November.

That rate hit 2,230 on Thursday, second highest in the state behind only Bent County in the southeastern corner, where there’s been a sizable outbreak at a prison though the prison numbers are not included in the incidence rate, according to Vance and local epidemiology data.

By comparison, Eagle County’s incidence rate Thursday was 702, Garfield County’s was 807 and Mesa County’s was 671, according to the state’s COVID-19 Dial.

“We continue to get pummeled with cases,” Vance said. “Twenty, 30, 40, 50 cases a day sometimes. We had 114 cases (Jan. 2). Contact tracing has been very busy with all the cases coming in.”

Pitkin County has reported 437 positive COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, according to local epidemiology data.

In December, the county saw 530 positive cases among permanent residents, and 65 positive cases in second homeowners, Vance said. In January, so far, public health already has recorded 122 positive cases and 31 positive cases among second homeowners, which puts this month well on-track to exceed December’s numbers.

“We have the second-highest (incidence) rate in the state, even if we exclude second homeowners,” Vance said.

Public health officials have investigated 35 outbreaks in the county in the past two weeks, 43% of which were tracked back to transmission between restaurant employees, he said. Restaurant outbreaks led to 86 positive cases in the county. Health officials cannot track transmission between guests and workers, Vance said.

Outbreaks at hotels, which accounted for just 5.7% of the total outbreaks, nonetheless accounted for 25 positive cases, the next highest number of caused infections.

Aspen restaurant employees hold signs outside of Bear Den Aspen imploring community members to help keep restaurants open through the next COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Local restaurant owners who commented during Thursday’s meeting balked at what they said was blame being cast their way for the rise in COVID-19 cases.

“I feel like this is an attack on restaurants,” said Samantha Cordts-Pearce, co-owner of the Wild Fig, The Monarch, No. 316 Steakhouse and the Woody Creek Tavern. “Closing restaurants is not the only solution to this problem.”

Caterers and DJs in the area “are booked like crazy” for private parties and “there’s no check on them,” she said.

Michael Goldberg, co-owner of Matsuhisa, said the number of local private parties and hotel room parties “is frightening, frankly.”

Goldberg, Cordts-Pearce and Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s, all advocated for a county-wide closure order rather than one that just shutters restaurants.

“If you want to close indoor dining, my suggestion is just go to Purple,” Yeager said. “If you close restaurants and nothing happens with the incidence rate, what do you do then?”

Public health officials said caterers and businesses associated with private parties have been contacted, but the events themselves are hard to track unless someone tips them off. And with restaurants, even those that closely follow the rules will be hit with outbreaks because the incidence rate now is so high, said Jordana Sabella, interim public health director.

“It’s just rampant in the community,” she said.

The only word against restaurants at Thursday’s meeting came from one of Pitkin County’s contact tracers/disease investigators.

“We’ve been kowtowing to the restaurant industry for too long,” said David Andrade, who told board members he’d noticed some local employers breaking the law and not paying employees under quarantine and isolation orders. “It seems employees bear the brunt of so much of what’s going on.”

The county’s contact tracing team can’t keep up, he said, noting the “exponential” jump in cases from around 400 in November to more than 1,300 now. The rampant infection is affecting parents, children and seniors, he said.

Kids are of particular concern.

The county’s positivity rate among children stood at 18.3% on Thursday, according to the local data. It’s also been growing significantly, Vance said.

In September, for example, four total school district classes were quarantined, affecting 47 students and staff. By the end of December, 18 classes had been quarantined, affecting a total number of 415 students and staff, he said. So far in January, three classes are pending quarantine.

“When incidence rates are this high, there’s more disruption to learning,” Vance said. “If our goal is for kids to stay in school, it takes a whole community” to make it happen.

The county’s overall positivity rate Thursday was at 12.8%, according to local data. If it hits 15%, that would mean two of the three metrics the state tracks would be at or above Red level restrictions.

The third metric of hospitalizations remains comfortable, though the number of health care workers testing positive for the virus is still high. In addition, two people with COVID-19 were transferred out of Aspen Valley Hospital last week, said Dr. Kim Levin, the county’s medical officer and an AVH emergency room physician.

The cases involved a 45-year-old man visiting Aspen and a local resident in his mid-50s, she said. Both were “fairly healthy” prior to being infected with COVID-19, and both were improving Thursday at lower altitudes, Levin said.

Public health officials have not yet found sign of the COVID-19 variant from the U.K and South Africa that is thought to be more contagious, Vance said.