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COVID-19 rate remains high in Pitkin County despite offseason

The number of COVID-19 cases in Pitkin County has not dropped in the last two weeks, despite the fact that offseason is in full effect and most tourists have gone home.

The plateau, which includes slight increases in the local incidence rate in the past week, is perhaps a reflection of Colorado as a whole, which currently has the 11th-highest rate of new COVID-19 cases in the country, said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director.

“It’s demonstrating the transmissibility of (the) delta (variant),” she said Wednesday. “We’re still staying this high with (tourism) that much lower.”

Pitkin County’s seven-day COVID-19 incidence rate per 100,000 people was 197 as of Tuesday, according to the county’s online dashboard. It was 191 on Monday, 203 on Sunday, 175 on Saturday and 203 on Friday. That followed a period between Oct. 10 and Oct. 14, when the incidence rate hovered around 160 and appeared possibly to be on the decline.

The Centers for Disease Control says that an incidence rate above 100 per 100,000 people indicates a high level of COVID-19 transmission.

The state of Colorado reported a 14-day incidence rate of 490 as of Wednesday, which compares to a 14-day rate in Pitkin County of 355 and 566 in Garfield County, according to online databases.

As of Tuesday, Pitkin County had detected 31 new COVID-19 cases among residents and an additional six cases from out of county sources, according to the dashboard. Daily case counts have hovered in that area for most of the past two weeks.

The state, meanwhile, reported 1,328 new cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday, according to the state’s online dashboard.

The one possible piece of good news is the county’s positive rate, which looks at the number of people testing positive for the virus, Sabella said. Pitkin County’s positivity rate has been above 5% for more than two weeks, which usually means public health officials probably aren’t catching all the local cases, she said.

In the past few days, however, the positivity rate has been dropping a bit into the 5% range, and was at 5.3% on Tuesday. In a call Wednesday with local public health officials, the state’s epidemiologist said that when the positivity rate begins to drop below 5%, it can be an indicator that incidence rates are about to drop as well, Sabella said.

“That’s potentially good news,” she said.

Colorado’s growing incidence rate tracks with other wintry, northern states including Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and North Dakota, which are all showing growing COVID-19 rates. Sabella said one theory is that cold weather is driving people inside and contributing to the higher incidence rates.

Other states like New York, California, Florida, Connecticut and Louisiana have incidence rates under 100 and are seeing decreasing rates on transmission, Sabella said.

The incidence rate in Pitkin County at this time last year was 84, which means public health officials are on guard for the upcoming winter season. Sabella declined to predict what might happen this winter.

“Where we go from here, we’ll just have to hold and see,” she said. “The incidence rate is higher (this year than last), but there’s many more vaccinated people than last year.”

Aspen Skiing Co. is expected to announce Thursday their ski season protocols for skiers and snowboarders, Sabella and a Skico spokesperson said Wednesday.

The county’s high level of vaccinations means less transmission than there would be without the vaccines, and that people who get the virus as a breakthrough case most likely won’t become seriously ill, Sabella said. She urged everyone to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.

 

Simpler COVID-19 strategies proposed for upcoming winter in Aspen, Pitkin County

While Aspen’s upcoming winter season will contain echoes of last winter’s COVID-19 mitigation strategies, vaccines and booster shots will likely allow for a simpler set of guidelines this time around, officials said Thursday.

The two main thresholds proposed to trigger either capacity restrictions or a total shutdown would be reached when Aspen Valley Hospital suspends elective surgeries and, if that doesn’t stem the tide, when the hospital has to resort to “crisis standards of care,” said Jordana Sabella, Pitkin County public health director, and Dave Ressler, the hospital’s CEO.

“The triggers are really about managing the hospital capacity,” Sabella told members of the Pitkin County Board of Health during their regular monthly meeting Thursday. “The measures are tied to the very important goal that the hospital has the capacity to care for COVID patients” as well as those who need regular medical care.

Other winter mitigation strategies will include Pitkin County’s indoor mask mandate, which probably isn’t going anywhere, while public health officials are suggesting that mandatory safety plans for every event with more than 50 people be brought back this winter and that visitors would again be made aware of Pitkin County’s COVID-19-related restrictions through a Traveler Responsibility Code, Sabella said.


The guidelines were brought forward Thursday after numerous conversations with different members of the community, including the hospitality industry, the Aspen Skiing Co., the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and the Aspen Chamber Resort Association, she said.

“We all have the same goal for a successful winter where we keep transmission down, protect the hospital and remain open,” Sabella said.

The public will be allowed to comment on the proposed restrictions online at Pitkin County’s COVID-19 website at covid19.pitkincounty.com until Oct. 31. The public comment will be provided to members of the board of health, who will make the final decision on the winter mitigation measures at their November meeting.

If Aspen Valley Hospital gets to the point where it must suspend elective surgeries so staff can take care of COVID-19 patients, the proposed mitigation says indoor capacity restrictions in Aspen and Pitkin County would fall to 50%, or require 100% of customers to be vaccinated. Events would be restricted as well, though specifics were not provided Thursday. Schools would not be included in those indoor capacity restrictions.

Aspen Mayor Torre, a member of the board of health, said Thursday he did not believe that the suspension of elective surgeries was a good enough measurement for the hospital being in trouble and that such a level could be reached simply because of a lack of staffing.

Ressler, however, said that such a milestone would not be taken lightly because the hospital makes most of its money from elective surgeries. The step to suspend them was akin to “literally choking off the oxygen to the organization,” he said.

“We’re all having staffing challenges,” Ressler said, noting that the only time he’s had to suspend elective surgeries in his career was in March 2020. “When we decide to suspend elective surgeries, it’s a major decision. When we get to that point … it’s a clear signal the hospital is in trouble.”

The capacity restrictions would be removed when elective surgeries are reinstated.

If the situation gets worse and AVH has to resort to “crisis standards of care,” the proposal is that Pitkin County would move to a stay at home order for most residents, travelers would be ordered to return home, only essential businesses would be allowed to open, all events would be canceled and schools would operate remotely.

“There would be much more severe mitigation measures at that point in time,” Sabella said.

As for the indoor mask mandate, there’s no expiration date, she said.

The requirement for everyone ages 2 and older will only disappear if the county logs 21 consecutive days with a COVID-19 incidence rate at 50 or below per 100,000 residents. However, it will reappear again if Pitkin County experiences five consecutive days when the incidence rate is above 50.

As of Wednesday, Pitkin County’s incidence rate was 146, the first time it’s dropped below 150 in weeks.

“We are still seeing a high transmission rate,” Sabella said. “There’s been a slow tick downwards.”

However, Sabella and Josh Vance, Pitkin County’s epidemiologist, said despite the still-high incidence rate, Pitkin County’s mandatory indoor mask rule is working.

Vance displayed a graph for board of health members Thursday showing that Pitkin County’s incidence rate was well above the state incidence rate before the mask mandate was introduced Sept. 16. Since then, however, the county’s incidence rate has dropped below the state incidence rate, which has begun to tick up, according to the graph.

A graph shown at Thursday’s Pitkin County Board of Health meeting showed the affect an indoor mask mandate has made compared to the rest of the state, most of which does not have a mandate.

Also, requiring masks in schools also has led to a lower percentage of COVID-19 cases in children ages 0 to 19 in Pitkin County than statewide, Vance said.

“There was a sudden drop in incidence when the mask mandate went into effect,” he said. “The state has not seen that kind of drop.”

Event safety plans and the use of the Traveler Responsibility Code are proposed to be in use between Dec. 1 and May 1.

Event safety plans would be required for all events with 50 or more people, and all attendees would need to be vaccinated or have had a recent negative COVID-19 test to enter. Other mitigation strategies would be tied to events depending on where they are held, how many are scheduled to attend and what kind of social distancing rules could be implemented.

The Traveler Responsibility Code would inform tourists coming to Aspen what is expected of them when they arrive. Last year, the public health order required hotels to inform travelers of those rules.

“We heard feedback that the Traveler Responsibility Code was beneficial to people coming here,” Sabella said.

The hospitality group helping to come up with the winter guidelines is still debating how the Traveler Responsibility Code will be distributed this season, she said.

AVH posts job openings to replace unvaccinated employees

Aspen Valley Hospital officials reported a 97% inoculation rate among its staff as of Monday, while 14 open positions are being advertised for employees vacating their jobs by opting out of the hospital’s vaccination mandate.

Hospital CEO David Ressler’s update to the hospital’s board of directors at their monthly meeting, which was held virtually, came after AVH announced in September that employees had until Oct. 31 to get fully vaccinated for COVID-19 or they would be terminated. Employees can retain their job if they opt out for religious or medical reasons.

The unvaccinated employees were notified last week that their jobs are being posted, Ressler said.

“They are a mix of full- and part-time and what we call PRN (on-call employees), … and the fact is everyone of them is important to us, and they have been serving our organization and our community,” Ressler said. “And it’s very sad if that is the choice they make to not become vaccinated, and we’ll have to replace their positions.”

Ressler said the employees can still get fully vaccinated by the deadline date by getting the Johnson & Johnson single dose.

“The good news for them is we do have J&J vaccinations still available, and because it’s a single shot they can receive their vaccination and still meet the deadline of Oct. 31, so we highly hope and encourage that that is the choice our staff will make,” he said.

Around the time the hospital announced its vaccination policy to employees in early to mid-September, 89% of its employees were fully vaccinated. AVH’s policy followed suit with the state board of health’s mandate passed Aug. 30 requiring all hospital and health care workers be fully vaccinated by Halloween.

At Monday’s meeting, both Ressler and chief of staff Dr. Catherine Bernard reported that the hospital’s entire body of physicians is fully vaccinated. That combined with the current overall rate of 97% is something the community can take notice of, Ressler said.

“It goes without the saying that if the entire community were at this level of vaccination status and those that visit us, for our community COVID would be a problem of the past,” Ressler said. “So it’s something we can all aspire to as a community and all communities across the country.”

AVH has given approximately 100 booster shots to 120 eligible employees over course of three clinics, while the remaining staffers received boosters elsewhere, said Elaine Gerson, the hospital’s chief operating officer.

AVH also is back in the “comfortable” zone as it pertains to the hospital’s ability to handle patients and also transfer them to regional medical care facilities, something Ressler said bodes well for the community, but he also noted the 25-bed facility’s vulnerability due to its size.

“We’re so small that it doesn’t take much for us to migrate from being comfortable to not being comfortable, to having to move into the cautious status,” he said.

The hospital entered a cautious status last month mainly due to the regional availability of acute care and intensive beds. AVH also was seeing a higher than usual volume of patients with COVID-19, chiefly the delta variant.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

COVID-19 ‘kind of bumping along’ in Pitkin County

The "Welcome Bear" at the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is masked up to remind visitors of the mask mandate in Pitkin County.
David Krause / The Aspen Times

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock summed up the county’s current COVID-19 situation Tuesday.

“Not much has changed,” he told county commissioners during their regular weekly work session.

The virus’ incidence rate per 100,000 residents was at 174 on Tuesday and has remained between about 140 and 174 for the past week. The county has logged 43 new positive cases in the past seven days, including 31 residents and 12 out of county cases, according to Pitkin County online dashboards.

That means COVID-19 numbers have gone down a bit but not nearly enough to begin the 21-day timeline that could lead to the end of the indoor mask mandate. The incidence rate must be below 50 for 21 consecutive days before the mask mandate can be lifted, according to the latest Pitkin County public health order.

“We had hoped the trend down was going to continue, but it’s kind of bumping along,” Peacock said.

He told commissioners, however, that he thought Aspen Valley Hospital might move back to “comfortable” status Wednesday from “cautious.” The hospital’s move to cautious last month had mainly to do with regional availability of acute care and intensive care beds, Peacock said.

Meanwhile, more details on what the COVID-19 situation in Aspen will look like for the upcoming winter season will be presented at the Pitkin County Board of Health meeting Oct. 14. Because of the advent of vaccines, the winter will look different than last winter season, he said.

For the 2021-2022 winter, the likely metric triggers for mitigation and capacity restrictions will be measures of serious illness and local hospital capacity, including the ability to transfer serious patients to regional and Denver hospitals, Peacock said.

Cornerstone Christian School pastor says his students should be exempt from mask mandate

Pastor Jim Tarr of Cornerstone Christian Church and School speaks to the Eagle County Commissioners on Tuesday.
Image from video recording

The pastor of Cornerstone Christian Church in the midvalley appealed to the Eagle County Commissioners this week to let his school determine its own policy on masks for students based on its religious status.

Pastor Jim Tarr, who also is president of Cornerstone Christian School, said the parents of students at the school should determine whether masks should be required rather than the Eagle County Health Department.

“In the role of society, children are not created to be obedient to any other system of government except for the wishes of their parents,” Tarr said Tuesday during the public comment portion of the county commissioners’ meeting.

He said the school isn’t forbidding masks as a precaution against COVID-19. It is letting families choose.

“There are a lot of parents who say, ‘I do not want to cover my child’s face for eight hours a day, five days per week, 180 days per year,’” he told commissioners.

Cornerstone Christian School is located along Highway 82 between El Jebel and Basalt. It has about 100 students enrolled.

Tarr took his case directly to the commissioners after he was told by the Eagle County Health Department the private Christian school must adhere to an indoor mask mandate that was extended Sept. 16 for all schools in the county. Tarr said his school requested a religious exemption.

“We didn’t hear anything for about three weeks, and that happened when we were reported to the county health department,” Tarr said. “So in that process, we began to meet with them and just said how can we navigate through this?”

The answer from the health department was to mask up. It’s an answer Tarr didn’t like, and it led to some turmoil at Cornerstone Christian School.

Principal Emily Lambert submitted her resignation after the school determined it would defy the public health order. A meeting that was called for parents after Lambert’s resignation became “very polarizing” with “anti-maskers versus maskers,” a parent said.

At least three families withdrew children from the school after the controversy erupted, according to one such parent.

As the standoff between the Christian school and county unfolded, county officials said it was their intent to meet with Tarr and explain why masks were required as a precaution against COVID-19. They said they weren’t interested in a heavy-handed enforcement action.

The county commissioners didn’t engage in conversation with Tarr. It is policy not to respond public comment. County manager Jeff Shroll said Wednesday that no resolution had been reached between CCS and the county health department.

Tarr indicated Tuesday he took offense at the tone of emails he received from the county health department.

“I just want you to understand the nature of the emails that were coming to me,” he told the county commissioners. “They would include language such as this — that the Legislature of the state of Colorado has granted to the directors of health departments, that they can, if we’re not complicit with their mandates during a crisis, they can actually take control of what happens on our property, they can quarantine. It also included this idea, if we don’t align with a mandate, then the penalty can be a $5,000 fine and 18 months in jail.”

Tarr closed his 12-minute presentation by noting that former President Barrack Obama was able to host a birthday party and not wear a mask during the pandemic without fear of getting fined or imprisoned.

“But you know what, what do I get from Eagle County? With all due respect, I get emails that are threatening, that carry threatening messages to me,” Tarr said. “And here’s the thing, if our policy ends up with me getting arrested or paying a $5,000 fine — trust me, I only have about one and a half $5,000 fines in me — then we’re done. But the truth is this. If the county (health department) comes against me, you have to understand it will be like shooting a fish in a barrel. I’m a little church and a little school, and I’m saying, please, let us live according to our faith.”

While Tarr didn’t make the case that the COVID-19 disease passes over students in religious schools, he did note that no classrooms had to be closed last year at CCS because of the pandemic.

scondon@aspentimes.com

COVID numbers slowly dropping in Pitkin County, though masks aren’t going anywhere

As fall takes root and the summer tourist onslaught wanes, so too does Pitkin County COVID-19 incidence rate, a county official said Tuesday.

The rate dropped from 202 on Friday to 163 per 100,000 people Monday, according to Pitkin County’s online COVID dashboard, while the number of cases among residents fell from 36 on Friday to 29 on Monday. The incidence rate is still within the Centers for Disease Control’s “high” metric, and Aspen Valley Hospital remains under the yellow “cautious” flag, but the numbers are decreasing, said Jon Peacock, county manager.

“The trends are looking better,” he told county commissioners Tuesday at their weekly work session. “With less activity and less mobility, we’re starting to see the incidence rates come down.”

Still, the county has a long way to go before the indoor mask mandate — imposed Sept. 16 by the board of health — goes away. That’s because the incidence rate must go south of 50 per 100,000 people for 21 consecutive days before it can be rescinded.

“I just want the public to understand that masks will be with us for a while,” Commissioner Patti Clapper said.

Pitkin County has logged a total of 36 new cases of COVID-19 in the past seven days, including seven out of county cases, according to the online dashboard. Since April 1, the county has logged 273 positive cases among full-vaccinated residents, which accounts for 1.8% of the total number of vaccinated residents.

Public health officials emphasize, however, that getting vaccinated is the best way to avoid serious illness and death.

Conversations about what will happen this winter are on-going, Peacock said, though capacity restrictions are likely to be triggered by hospital capacity threats. The public will have a chance to weigh-in when those winter metrics are debated and determined, he said.

Mask mandate, proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test at Wheeler in effect next month

The city of Aspen’s mask mandate inside of the Wheeler Opera House and the requirement of proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of entry will take effect no later than Oct. 15.

Aspen City Council on Tuesday approved a resolution that solidifies direction it gave to City Manager Sara Ott on Monday that in order to protect public health, pandemic protocols are necessary for large gatherings during performances.

The resolution, which passed 4-1, designates Ott to “issue formal rules and regulations regarding the attendance, working and/or volunteering at any performance or other event, public or private, at the Wheeler Opera House, which rules shall, at a minimum, require either proof of vaccination 14 days before the performance or event or proof of a negative COVID-19 test that was administered by a third party testing provider within the previous 72 hours. In addition, the rules shall require all persons on the Wheeler premises to wear face coverings, unless prevented pursuant to a medical exemption or unless performing on stage,” the document reads.

Councilwoman Rachel Richards dissented, saying she wanted the mandate to go further and had previously advocated for proof of vaccination only and no tests.

The new rules take effect no later than Oct. 15 and will remain in effect until April 15, 2022, unless council decides otherwise.

 

Outdoor dining continues in downtown Aspen this winter

A couple snuggles up to one another while walking down Mill Street in downtown Aspen in April 2021. Along the block is the outdoor space for La Creperie. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Aspen City Council agreed Monday to continue allowing some private use in the public right of way as part of its COVID-19 economic response but what will be different this winter is businesses are going to have to pay for it.

After considering different fee options presented by Mitch Osur, the city’s director of parking and downtown services, council landed on charging $0.59 a square foot in right-of-way space, which is predicated on three head-in parking spaces approximating 360 square feet.

That ends up being $6.98 a day, or $1,047 for an assumed 150 days of activation. It is based on the $100 a day that the city charges for a parking space for construction activity.

When unencumbered by construction or business activation, a parking space generates on average about $25 a day, according to Osur.

Existing structures taking up parking spaces, which are only three and include La Creperie, Meat and Cheese and Kemo Sabe, will be allowed to remain until May 1, and no new ones can be added to the downtown landscape.

In addition to the square footage fee, those existing businesses with outdoor structures will be subject to growth management and affordable housing mitigation fees and will be approved through an administrative temporary use review.

For those three businesses that have existing structures in parking spaces, the additional cost is around $5,000 depending on how much square footage their structures are and how long they will be activated in the public right-of-way.

“That’s a pretty screaming deal for these people,” Councilman John Doyle said. “I think why we are revisiting this is because COVID hasn’t gone away, and we didn’t want these people to take down the structures when they would have to rebuild them possibly again.”

Council also agreed to designate at no cost one parking space per block where a restaurant is located for pick up of takeout food.

If a restaurant wants its own dedicated space, it will have to pay the $0.59 per-square-foot fee, council decided.

Council members said it’s been difficult to enforce whether people park in dedicated takeout spaces for other reasons so it’s fair to offer one per block for multiple restaurants.

Currently there are 18 parking space dedicated for takeout, with most restaurants using two, according to Osur.

Staff had recommended that the city allow pick-up spots for restaurants that have seating for six people or less immediately adjacent to their businesses and charge a fee for bigger establishments.

“Our goal seems to be that we want to facilitate the ability for people to get to-go because of the pandemic we are in,” Mayor Torre said. “If that’s our goal, do we really need this charge?”

The use of parking spaces by restaurants and other businesses, such as bike rental shops and uncovered dining, will come to an end Oct. 31, council decided during Monday’s work session.

The use of sidewalks for business activation, like what Aspen Tap has been doing along Galena Street, also comes to an end Oct. 31.

If a restaurant seeks to activate on the pedestrian malls, they will pay the current $4.43 per-square-foot rate that establishments have been paying that use that right-of-way space.

Short-term retail operations will not be allowed on the street unless they are associated with a special event permit.

Temporary structures on private property, like Local Coffee House and Mezzaluna, can remain until May 1 and also will be subject to growth management and affordable housing mitigation, which will be approved through an administrative temporary use review.

All of the decisions that council made are part of the city’s vitality program, which was first instituted last summer when the local economy opened up with capacity restrictions. It was continued into the winter with variations and again this past summer.

The program was set to expire Oct. 31, and council had to pivot in the city’s activation strategies to level the playing field so all businesses are paying for the use of public space.

The changes will be formalized in a resolution that council is expected to approve in October, according to Phillip Supino, the city’s community development director.

“Also, it allows staff direction to work with the business community to respond to the changes through the regulatory landscape with respect to how we’re allowing businesses to navigate through the use of right of way,” he said.

csackariason@aspentimes.com

Wheeler to require negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination

The majority of Aspen City Council on Monday walked back last week’s decision to only allow people into the Wheeler Opera House during performances if they can show proof of vaccination for COVID-19 and reject the flexibility of showing a negative test within 72 hours of entry.

Council agreed during Monday’s work session to follow the Wheeler Advisory Board recommendation that all people at the opera house have either a full COVID vaccination or negative 72-hour COVID test, as well as put in place a mask mandate in the city-owned facility.

When the mandate takes effect is unknown. A resolution is expected to be voted on by council during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

Council was originally scheduled to pass the new mandate as an emergency ordinance this week but City Attorney Jim True said it is not necessary since the municipal government has authority to manage its facility as it sees fit.

The new policy affects individuals who are in the building for a performance or private rental, which includes staff, volunteers, attendees and performers.

There are 57 days until the end of the year that the Wheeler has performances and private rentals booked, with roughly 17 days of normal operations where the theater is empty and the visitors center and lobby box office are open to the public, according to Assistant City Manager Diane Foster.

City Manager Sara Ott noted last week during council’s deliberation that the federal government has not yet released the rules for the future vaccination and testing requirement for businesses who employ 100 or more people.

She also noted if a vaccination requirement was enacted for all Wheeler volunteers and staff, there could be operational impacts.

The Wheeler has 14 full-time staff and employs an additional 24 intermittent staff, according to Foster.

“For planning purposes, we should assume some of those 38 employees are unvaccinated,” Foster wrote in a memo to council. “The greatest impact to staff could be having job-related requirements different from other staff. While many departments have job-related safety requirements, if there is a Wheeler vaccination requirement, senior management anticipate some staff will object, quit, or the city would be forced to terminate employment. A vaccination or negative test requirement gives staff more flexibility.”

City Councilwoman Rachel Richards voiced concern about allowing unvaccinated people into the venue because they are a threat to public health.

“I realize I might well be a minority on this council and maybe in the public in general, but I’m kind of tired of suffering the tyranny of the unvaccinated. The unvaccinated are why I am wearing a mask every day again,” she said. “I’ve had to ask myself, and I know that this is a contrarian opinion, but I would rather have reduced services and reduced staff if folks are not taking this seriously.”

Reviewing the proof vaccination and test results, as well as administering those tests will be done by a third party so the city is not obtaining or retaining medical information of individuals, Ott said.

Council agreed to that stipulation, and Mayor Torre said he will contact some third party testing companies to see if they can provide onsite or near the venue rapid tests at an affordable price.

“This is another difficult discussion, and I think we were all hoping to be done with this, but we are not,” he said. “I guess the one thing we can say is this is a step in the direction of health and safety in the Wheeler Opera House.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com

Eagle County urges El Jebel Christian school to mask up

Cornerstone Christian School in El Jebel on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Officials from Eagle County Public Health and the Cornerstone Christian School in El Jebel plan to meet this week to try to get on the same page on COVID-19 precautions.

Eagle County issued a public health order Sept. 16 that extends an indoor mask requirement for students who are too young to be eligible for a vaccination. Students in schools and child care facilities must wear masks until Oct. 29 or until the community case incidence rate is maintained below 50 cases per 100,000 for seven consecutive days.

The health order applies to public and private schools, Eagle County officials said. But Cornerstone Christian School hasn’t mandated masks for its students, who are in classes ranging from preschool to high school.

“The decision was, this is a parent’s decision,” said Chase McWhorter, the parent of a student at CCS and also a candidate in the November election for a seat on the Roaring Fork School District board of education.

He said keeping circumstances as normal as possible for the students drives decisions at Cornerstone. McWhorter noted he wasn’t on the school’s governing board or administration. His perspective was strictly as a parent of a student at the school.

McWhorter said kids were allowed to do “kids things” all summer long — playing with one another, being around people without social distancing and not wearing a mask. Then school resumed and the county said they must wear masks again.

“To just slap it down the 11th hour, that’s where parents are frustrated,” McWhorter said.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll said the goal of this week’s meeting is to sit down with Cornerstone Christian School officials and see if there are questions or issues about the mask requirement. The county’s actions are designed to keep schools operating in-person, he said. That’s achieved by avoiding breakouts of COVID-19 among students and staff, which forces online education. The county health department said the most effective way to keep kids in school is requiring them to wear masks.

Eagle County’s announcement of the mask requirement extension contended that conditions in the county warranted the precaution.

“The school year started with the challenge of a much higher amount of COVID-19 transmission in the community as compared to the 2020-2021 school year,” the announcement said.

The public health department noted at the time of the announcement in mid-September that “this decision remains difficult given the elevated concerns among community members, both for and against mask requirements.”

Elevated concerns over the mask requirement bubbled over in Jefferson County in Colorado’s Front Range this week, according to coverage by The Denver Post. The Jeffco Health Department sought a judge’s order to force three small Christian schools to follow the county’s mask requirement. The health department said its inspectors found the mask mandate wasn’t being properly enforced in classrooms. The schools contended, in part, that the mandate was unconstitutional.

Shroll stressed that Eagle County’s emphasis is on education rather than enforcement action. He said the county feels the masks in indoor settings are a simple yet effective precaution.

“We’re not mandating vaccines,” Shroll said.

Cornerstone Christian School’s position has reportedly sparked internal debate. Some parents decided to remove their children from the school, according to sources familiar with the moves but didn’t want to go on the record for fear of alienating other parents. The number of children pulled from the school over the lack of masks couldn’t be determined.

In addition, CCS executive director Emily Lambert and the school parted ways earlier this month. Lambert declined comment about her departure when contacted by The Aspen Times. She was in the position since July 2019.

Pastor Jim Tarr of the Cornerstone Christian Center, which operates the school, also declined comment on personnel matters and “families’ choices.”

Tarr invited The Aspen Times on Tuesday to submit written questions about the mask debate but said via email Wednesday that he and the governing board at the school decided not to provide answers.

“We are having a meeting with representatives from Eagle County and look forward to working with them,” Tarr’s email said. “We are pleased that we haven’t had any incidences of COVID last year or this year.”

scondon@aspentimes.com