Virus numbers gaining but Aspen still low risk |

Virus numbers gaining but Aspen still low risk

Mask mandate not in current discussions as Pitkin County sees increase in positive COVID cases

Visitors walk around downtown Aspen on a busy summer afternoon in early July 7. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Not only have reports of the COVID-19 pandemic’s death been greatly exaggerated, so too have rumors about Pitkin County’s returning to mandatory mask rules.

That was one theme to emerge Tuesday during Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s monthly meeting of its board of directors, which touched on what has been a summer hopping with tourists but rife with concerns about the surging delta variant’s impact locally. Not only do mixed messages abound, the rumor mill also is busy.

“There are rumors swirling about mask mandates coming back, about people in the hospital … with delta not being told, the community not be told, and that we’re going back to lock-down in the fall,” ACRA board member and attorney Maria Morrow said. “And I would be very curious about it, because it does seem like the rumors are starting to swirl more, and I’d like to understand what we should be prepared for.”

Aspen Valley Hospital CEO David Ressler and County Commissioner Patti Clapper said nothing of the sort is happening when it concerns another mask mandate.

“I will tell you there are absolutely no conversations that I am hearing or am part of with Pitkin County Public Health,” Ressler said, adding public health mandates are issued when community health is at risk.

“But there are contingency plans in place that if the incidence rate does go up significantly, along with the positivity rate, if there’s just that much more virus in the community, of course we’re going to have to snap back. We’re going to have to go back into protective provisions as a community, as every community will have to do, and that’s what we all want to avoid.

“Do we necessarily think that’s going to happen? We hope not. I would say that we’re now a couple of weeks past July Fourth holiday, and we saw a slight bump up in the number of tests we’re doing and the positive cases that are coming back, but it’s not concerning yet. It’s the colder weather and the natural course of the virus that we’re concerned about.”

Pitkin County currently is at low-risk when it comes to transmission of COVID-19 Ressler said, chiefly because of its high immunization rate.

“I think this community has done a fantastic job of getting vaccinated,” he said.

Its one-week cumulative case count, however, quadrupled from six on July 20 to 24 on Monday, based on figures from the county.

Rises also are reflected in the positivity rate, which doubled from 2.5% to 5% during the same period, and the incidence rate, which grew from 33.8 to 135.2. In early January, when Pitkin County’s incidence rate was the highest in the state and among the 20 highest in the U.S., the figure hovered in the 3,000 range.

People who work in health care aren’t alone in their concerns about the virus and its variant. For as busy as this summer has been, the winter is a different species.

“I would say we’re more uncertain for the winter … with the delta variant,” said Donnie Lee, ACRA board member and general manager of The Gant condominium resort hotel. “I think we expect winter to be good, but certainly not to pre-pandemic levels.”

Delta also is an issue for live-music venues, which book artists and sell tickets in advance.

“My biggest concern, frankly, is delta,” said board member Michael Goldberg, who owns the Belly Up nightclub and co-owns Matsuhisa, a Japanese restaurant.

“It’’s really hard to predict what happens with delta and what we do if CDC or the county was to advise going backwards or re-instating indoor-mask policies. So hopefully everybody gets vaccinated.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention happened to update its mask guidance Tuesday, recommending that vaccinated people wear masks indoors in areas with high COVID-19 transmission rates.

The White House, citing concerns about the delta variant, also announced Monday it would keep in place travel restrictions in Europe, chiefly the United Kingdom and the European Schengen area of 26 nations. Some ACRA board members said they did not expect those restrictions to be lifted by this winter.

“Conversely, that means we’ll see a lot more domestic business this upcoming winter,” said Jeff Bay, an ACRA board member who represents the lodging sector. Bay also is managing director of HayMax Hotels LLC, which owns Hotel Aspen and Molly Gibson Lodge. “I think we’ll see higher use of the Ikon and pass products.”

Aspen Skiing Co. is part of the Ikon Pass program, which provides holders access to 44 ski areas.

Delta’s impact cannot be downplayed, Ressler said.

“The concerns about delta, they are real,” he said. “Delta spreads 50% faster and it’s more virulent than the standard COVID. It’s a major problem and it’s affecting us globally and it’s affecting us locally.

“There really is only one defense, and that is a high vaccination rate.”

Among those eligible for shots in Pitkin County, 66.7% have been fully vaccinated as of Monday, according to the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. The CDPHE data also states 86.7% of Pitkin County residents have received one or more doses of any vaccine. Pitkin County has the third highest vaccination rate of one or more doses among the 64-county state, behind San Juan and San Miguel, according to CDHE.

Although the mask mandate has been lifted, businesses and organization can set their own public health rules, and face coverings are still required on public transportation and airport terminals.

“We are also having issues with masks, as well, in the terminal,” said Dan Bartholomew, director of Aspen-Pitkin County Airport. ”People think they can get off the aircraft and they rip off their masks and stand around, so we’re going to be upping our signage around there.

“We’ve had a couple of incidents, one in which we had to bring the sheriff in to address the individuals. We’re hoping that doesn’t proliferate anymore. That’s been a difficult issue.”

Challenges in a similar vein have occurred this summer at the Aspen Music Festival & School, which has vaccinated and distanced seating available to patrons. The festival announced last week it would no longer limit the number of patrons at Karetsky Music Lawn, and it also recently reopened its lemonade stand for concessions during the Friday and Sunday concerts.

“We think our audience protocols are working,” said Alan Fletcher, board member and CEO and president of the Music Fest. “One of the signs of being in Aspen, we are criticized from all sides. We had a board meeting yesterday and I had people of major importance to us saying ‘you are idiots because there is no COVID. Vail Bravo (also a classical music festival held during the summer) is completely open. What’s the matter with you people?’

“And then I have other people saying ‘it’s ridiculous that you’re allowing people to come into the tent, period.’ So since we are being assailed everywhere, we think we’re in the right spot. … that’s where we are. We’re halfway through our season and it’s been super successful, a very happy audience and, we think, a great artistic product.”

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