Sean Beckwith: So much for Aspen exceptionalism

Aspen’s approach to winter season has been uniquely … Aspen. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. What I mean by that is it seems as though metrics that apply to other counties and get them moved into the Red level don’t apply here.

Aspen’s numbers have been steadily getting worse since about two weeks after Thanksgiving and are now so bad that indoor dining is being shuttered Sunday. Skiing is still open but a reservation system will only be enacted when the number of skiers surpasses a magical threshold yet to be revealed by Aspen Skiing Co.* Hotels are moving to 50% capacity, so those properties that were bustling — anyone? anyone? Bueller? Bueller? — now have to cancel reservations, though they would probably just be happy to be 50% full.

Technically, Pitkin County has been awful for a while now but people could’ve been dying on park benches and the holiday season would’ve went forward as it did. We were making up designations to keep restaurants open. Orange-plus was like a super secret double probation we created to avoid closing indoor dining. (Trying to work in a few older references; I have a diverse readership.)

Pitkin County acted as if it had impunity when it comes to a pandemic and quickly found out that’s not how it works. Other than bending and contorting the colors as long as possible so businesses that matter can stay open, the only other thing put in place to control the spread was a mandatory-but-not-really-because-it’s-by-the-honor-system traveler affidavit.

If you’re confused as to my point, that’s the point. There has been so much mixed messaging and case-by-case allowances that no one really knows what our restrictions are.

You can still ski reservation free but are hotel pools and workout facilities at 50% capacity because they’re in a hotel and not a standalone gym/pool? Families come out and they’re all staying in separate units but no one is monitoring if they’re convening to eat at a single unit, which they most definitely are.

When you have hospitality workers unsure of how to answer pretty important questions — What are the restrictions? Do I need an affidavit? Can our kids swim together? — people are going to take that waffling answer as “We’re safe.” There’s been more than a few times I’ve wanted to shout “What reality are you living in?!” at a guest for asking if they can violate some restriction I’m not sure is in place.

“Yes, ma’am, your six families can eat at Venga Venga if you’re outside but not if you’re inside. If you want to eat as a family, my suggestion would be to either stay in Mississippi or violate rules I’m not paid to enforce.”

I don’t know if it’s the remote location or the amount of money in the valley that let’s Aspen operate seemingly free of state regulation but some people living and visiting here think that’s the MO.

Is the cost of living so high here because I’m paying some sort of unseen Aspen exceptionalism tax?

No wonder the restaurant industry is furious at local officials for being singled out when they’ve been picking and choosing our color and restrictions on the rainbow sherbet dial for a month now. It’s been proven that private gatherings are most responsible for community spread but we can’t do anything about those, so the only thing on the chopping block is the expendables.

And restaurateurs and front desk and reservations agents aren’t the only ones more than a little confused.

Despite record real estate sales in 2020 and decade-old census data, people were still caught off-guard by the number of seniors who signed up for a vaccine. Maybe our metrics have been in the Red but deaths and hospitalizations have remained low because we drastically underestimated the population or the health of residents. “Fitkin” County is consistently among the healthiest counties in the nation.

I guess I’m confused, too. Why now? Were Red-level protocols delayed until after the holidays to keep restaurants open? Or were they simply delayed until our high-paying guests left? Because clearly the numbers are arbitrary.

If we know private gatherings are the greatest source of spread, then they should be the focus of restrictions. Cracking down on Timmy because you can’t control Sally doesn’t make sense.

I know private functions are nearly impossible to regulate, but if you can make an example out of just one gathering — or even its caterer — then perhaps that’s enough to make the next host/caterer think twice.

There needs to be more definitive and clearly defined restrictions and rules so visitors, residents and businesses know where the line is, where black turns to white or Red or Purple or Orange or Orange-plus.

*Case and point: Skico’s “Can’t give away trade secrets” excuse for keeping hidden its number of skiers that would force a reservation system is “Rules don’t apply to us” at its finest, and thus has to be frustrating for those forced to play by the rules.

Sean Beckwith is a copy editor at The Aspen Times. Reach him at