Tougher COVID restrictions hit businesses in El Jebel and Basalt |

Tougher COVID restrictions hit businesses in El Jebel and Basalt

Moises Carrillo from Two Man Crew builds a vestibule outside of Sure Thing in Willits on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020. Eagle County is in the 'high risk' orange level due to soaring COVID-19 cases. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Business owners in Basalt and El Jebel dreaded Eagle County’s state-mandated move into tougher COVID-19 restrictions Monday just as ski season creeps nearer.

Eagle County officially transferred from a yellow level, which means “concern,” to orange or “high risk” on the state’s COVID-19 dial at 5 p.m. Monday. The move was required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment because of a high case incidence rate. The El Jebel area and part of Basalt are in Eagle County.

“It does mean additional capacity limits on restaurants, retail establishments, places of worship, gyms, group sports and events,” Eagle County government said in a news release.

County officials have warned since Nov. 3 that the change was likely coming, so it didn’t catch many business owners off guard. Nevertheless, it’s a gut punch for restaurants that survived and in some cases thrived during the summer because of outdoor dining space.

“Now we’re going to get the double whammy — outdoor seating is going away and we’re dropping” in indoor capacity, said Greg Jurgensen, owner of the Brick Pony bar and restaurant in downtown Basalt.

Restaurants must limit indoor seating to 25% of capacity or a maximum of 50 people, whichever is lowest, with the move to orange.

The summer was “great” for business because Basalt allowed expanded seating in the public right-of-way, Jurgensen said. But now that winter is closing in, outdoor dining isn’t feasible. Some restaurants have added heated tents and igloo-like structures to expand capacity. Jurgensen said he will explore a tent as an option but is wary of taking on the added expense.

The restriction from 50% of capacity to 25% is going from bad to worse.

“If we were at 50% and just indoors, I don’t think there’s a restaurant in the valley equipped to deal with that,” he said. “Now it’s going to get ugly. We’ll scrape by as best we can.”

Sure Thing Burger in Willits Town Center thrived this summer with take-out business and seating on its patio and a park across the street. Nevertheless, owner Scott Picard said he has pondered since May how to get through the winter.

“The cost of a tent is just too prohibitive,” he said.

He came up with the simple but effective solution of adding a vestibule on the front of his restaurant so customers can be out of the elements when they pick up an order and his workers don’t get frozen inside. Workers started putting up the vestibule, canvas with windows, on Monday. It will be complete by the end of the week.

Picard’s system allows customers to order online. They can wait in the warmth of their vehicles until they receive a text when their order is ready to pick up.

He said he hopes the vestibule proves to be a viable alternative for restaurants in the midvalley. They are already used extensively by Aspen restaurants.

Even with the addition, he expects business to take a hit with Eagle County’s move to the high-risk zone.

“It will impact us because the community is going to pause,” Picard said.

However, he sees the community rallying to support businesses, just as it did when restrictions eased last spring. Summer 2020 will be remembered as a Summer of Love, Picard said, because local residents rallied to help one another.

Retail shop owners aren’t expecting as big of a hit from the increased restrictions. Tracy Bennett, longtime owner of Midland Shoe in downtown Basalt, said her small shop rarely faces capacity issues. It hosts a handful of shoppers at a time.

She is hoping people will increase their commitment to stopping the spread of the coronavirus so that restrictions are eased before winter business really picks up during the Christmas shopping time and heart of ski season.

“At least if it’s going to hit, it’s going to hit at the right time,” she said of Monday’s tighter restrictions.

It would be disastrous if conditions don’t improve and a stay-at-home order is issued again like in March.

“They can’t do that. It will just kill me,” Bennett said.

John Charters, co-owner and manager of Bristlecone Mountain Sports in Willits, said it was apparent where Eagle County was headed because of its COVID-19 numbers in the Roaring Fork Valley, so he met with the staff Sunday to talk about tougher protocols and a “reset.”

The store already moved its fitting area for backcountry boots and gear rental to a more isolated part of the store. Workers in that department will wear shields for further protection since they are often in contact with customers for more than 15 minutes, he said.

When restrictions were imposed last spring, he and his staff were shell-shocked, just as many businesses were, he said. While this is another step backward, the Bristlecone staff is better prepared to deal with it this time. They will limit the number of customers in the store at one time, if necessary.

Like other business owners, he hopes residents and visitors of the Roaring Fork Valley will follow the good practices necessary to quickly reduce the COVID-19 numbers.

“Nobody wants to see a shutdown,” Charters said. “I’d like to see this get knocked down.”

Eagle County’s COVID-19 website said the two-week cumulative incidence number is 633. The two-week average positivity rate is 8.3%. Businesses are paying a price even though social gatherings have been identified as the culprit for the increased cases of COVID-19.

“Social gatherings continue to be the driver of transmission in our community,” the website said. “29 percent of newly reported first, second and third generation cases associated with an event such as a party, wedding or out of state sports tournament.”

Nearly 60% of people testing positive could not recall a known exposure to someone with illness or a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Basalt Chamber of Commerce executive director Kris Matera said Basalt businesses have traditionally remained open during the offseason.

“With the recent challenges these businesses have faced, more are looking towards the offseason as much needed time off — both physically and mentally — allowing them to regroup in time for the traditionally busier winter weeks ahead,” she said.

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