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Lack of interest puts early end to Pitkin County’s mass vaccination clinics

Public health officials will end Pitkin County’s mass vaccination clinics earlier than expected after numerous cancellations last week and dwindling local interest in getting vaccinated, a spokeswoman said Monday.

“The challenge in filling appointments last week was telling,” said Tracy Trulove, a Pitkin County spokeswoman.

Initially, the county’s public health department planned to move the mass vaccination clinics from the Benedict Music Tent parking lot to the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot at the end of April and hold clinics there the first two weeks of May, with the last clinic scheduled for May 14.

But after many people canceled vaccination appointments Friday, and with others displaying a lack of interest in the two-dose Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, officials decided to spare the expense of staging mass clinics in May, Trulove said.

Officials will administer 1,170 second doses of the Pfizer vaccine Thursday at the Benedict Music Tent parking lot, though the county received zero doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, she said. The final two mass vaccination clinics will be held at the Benedict site April 22 and 23, Trulove said.

After that, the clinical arm of the public health department — Community Health Services — will administer vaccines, as will local primary care physicians and pharmacies, she said. The county will stop ordering vaccines from the state after next week in favor of the smaller distribution systems.

Clark’s Pharmacy and City Market Pharmacy are offering vaccine appointments locally, Trulove said. Those who want to find a place to receive a vaccine can go to Pitkin County’s website at https://covid19.pitkincounty.com and look for the vaccine finder.

Public health officials also are reserving 150 Pfizer doses for local 16- and 17-year-olds, who were notified of the vaccine availability through the Aspen School District, Trulove said. As of Monday, 95 of those 150 appointments had been filled, she said.

Pitkin County health officials: Don’t believe vaccine myths

Sally Maxwell, left, takes photos as her husband, Zach Maxwell, is given the Johnson & Johnson vaccine by Aspen Valley Hospital registered nurse Lauren Angelo at the vaccine tent in Aspen on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Myths and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines are rampant and Pitkin County public health officials are trying to get out the truth in an effort to convince more people to be vaccinated and better protect the community.

“There’s no difference between getting vaccinated and wearing a helmet (while skiing or biking),” said Gabe Muething, one of the coordinators of the county’s mass vaccine clinics and the director of the Aspen Ambulance District. “I have not been able to find a downside to getting a vaccine.”

Muething said he and others who supervise newly vaccinated people at the clinics, now being held at the Benedict Music Tent parking lot but soon to move to the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot, spend a lot of time shooting down rumors and myths about the vaccines.

With three COVID-19 vaccines now approved by the federal government, one of the most common questions is which one is better, he said.

“The answer, hands down, is each one is great,” Muething said. “There is not one that is better than the other. Get the one you can get.”

Carly Senst, Pitkin County’s vaccine coordinator, agreed.

“The best vaccine you can possibly get is the one you can get the soonest,” she said.

Another common question is about side effects, Muething said. People say they hear that one vaccine causes stronger side effects than the other, though he’s seen no evidence that the Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines provoke universal responses.

“It seems to be very person-dependent,” he said. “Some people have side effects with one and others don’t. Because it seems so random, it’s hard to say.”

Many people who have already had COVID-19 think they don’t need the vaccine, Muething and Senst said. However, having the virus only provides antibodies for a limited amount of time, Senst said.

“The vaccines are designed for longevity,” she said. “A vaccine provides better protection than (the body’s) immune response to having the virus.”

Muething said not getting the vaccine is a risk, especially with the prevalence of variants on the rise.

“You’re gambling if you don’t get a vaccine,” he said, “although a lot of people are looking at it as an acceptable gamble.”

Dr. Kim Levin, Pitkin County’s medical officer and an emergency physician at Aspen Valley Hospital, said Thursday during a meeting of the Pitkin County Board of Health that younger people who have not been eligible for the vaccines until recently constitute a significant number of new cases. In fact, of the two people hospitalized with COVID-like symptoms at AVH as of Thursday, one was a 19-year-old, she said.

She and Josh Vance, the county’s epidemiologist, also pointed out that in a study of Roaring Fork Valley residents who have had the virus, 57% reported having at least one lingering symptom months later. In addition, a recent U.K. study found that 33% of more than 236,000 people who’d had the virus reported a lingering neurological or psychiatric disorder, with about 13% of those never having been diagnosed with such a disorder before, Vance said.

During Thursday’s meeting, Levin addressed several common myths about the vaccines, she said. They include:

• The vaccines are not safe because they were developed so rapidly. Answer: The vaccines were developed using the same protocols used to develop other vaccines, she said.

• The mRNA technology behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is too new and not safe. Answer: The technology has been around at least two decades, has been used to treat SARS and cancer and is safe, Levin said.

• The vaccines will make you test positive for COVID-19 or make you sick with the virus. Answer: The vaccines do not have COVID-19 in them but, instead, are designed to provoke an immune response to protect against it. People can test positive after receiving the vaccine, but the vaccine is not the cause of the infection, she said.

• Vaccines will change a person’s DNA and have long-term effects on the body. Answer: Again, this is not true as the vaccines don’t interact with DNA, Levin said.

• Vaccines contain preservatives, egg products, animal products, microchips, fetal cells and are linked to 5G networks. Answer: This is all false, she said.

• I’m young and not at risk from COVID-19, so I don’t need the vaccine. Answer: The virus affects each person’s body differently and anyone can have long-term effects, she said. Also, the severity of the illness is not an indicator of whether a person will have long-term effects, she said.

• I have allergies so I shouldn’t get the vaccine. Answer: The vaccines have been seen to show a very low rate of allergic reactions, Levin said. Muething said Friday that no one has been taken to the hospital because of an allergic reactions since the mass clinics began in Aspen.

• The vaccines are not safe for pregnant women or can cause infertility or miscarriages. Answer: There’s no indication this is true, and half of pregnant women in the Roaring Fork Valley have been vaccinated, Levin said. Vaccines also are safe for women who are breastfeeding, while antibodies have been shown to be able to be passed on to newborns, she said.

Pitkin County’s mass vaccine clinics will run through May 14. Clinics will be held at the Benedict Music Tent parking lot through April, after which they will move to the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot.

Those interested in receiving the vaccine can sign up on the county’s COVID-19 webpage at https://covid19.pitkincounty.com.

 

RFTA offers workers $500 bonus to get COVID vaccine

A Mountain Rescue Aspen member, who declined to provide his name, vaccinates Lisa Kilby with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine alongside Jackie Lapid, right, and dog Freya in their car at the vaccine tent in Aspen on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Top officials with the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority are disappointed a $500 bonus for employees who get the COVID-19 vaccine has not spurred more action.

As of Tuesday, 212 out of 385 employees for the public transit agency had been fully vaccinated, Jason Smith, RFTA’s safety and training manager, informed the board of directors at a meeting Thursday. Another 18 employees had one dose at that time, he said, boosting the number of fully or partially vaccinated employees to 59%.

Smith said a “surge” of employees got their shots when the bonus was announced and then tailed off. The program is one of the most generous in the valley.

Kurt Ravenschlag, RFTA’s chief operating officer, indicated RFTA officials thought the bonus would inspire more employees to act fast to get the vaccinations.

“We were probably hoping to be at higher numbers than 59%,” he said.

But the number could be lagging because of workload. RFTA chief executive officer Dan Blankenship noted that winter is a busy time for the bus agency’s workers and that some worked overtime during the season.

Getting to scheduled vaccination clinics on a designated day might not have worked for many workers, especially since shots were initially only available in Aspen. Since then, vaccinations have become available in Eagle and Garfield counties and at local pharmacies.

Ed Cortez, a RFTA bus driver and president of the local chapter of the union for drivers, said he believes the $500 bonus was a good incentive that is appreciated by drivers and other employees.

“I would have been happy with $250,” Cortez said. “They went with $500 and I was ecstatic.”

Like Blankenship, Cortez said many drivers haven’t had the time to get their vaccination because of workload. He estimated 75% of them have indicated they will get the shots.

RFTA’s executive team decided in mid-February to offer the financial incentive. The agency was informed by Pitkin County Public Health on Feb. 15 that frontline workers would be eligible for vaccinations in Phase 1B.3, with shots first administered Feb. 25. All RFTA employees, regardless of their department, were considered frontline workers. RFTA management passed on information to employees on how to register for an appointment for a vaccination. However, not everyone could go on the same day since the agency had to maintain bus service.

RFTA management initially figured it would have until March or April to work on a campaign to encourage employees to get vaccinated and determine whether or not to offer an incentive. Instead, it had to act fast in February.

Officials decided that any financial incentive had to be a substantial amount based on lackluster response to a $50 bonus to get a flu shot. Only about 30% of employees got their flu shot.

RFTA also felt the expense of offering $500 incentives was worth it, considering the financial toll that COVID-19 has had on the organization.

“Since the pandemic began, RFTA has had over 130 employees who have either tested positive for COVID-19, experienced COVID-19-like symptoms and were required to quarantine, or were exposed to someone with COVID-19 and required to quarantine,” a March 11 staff memo to the board said.

“During 2020, RFTA incurred over $2 million in direct costs associated with managing the pandemic and on protecting its employees and the public,” the staff memo continued. “These costs are currently ongoing in 2021.”

The bonus is considered a good investment, Blankenship told The Aspen Times. If all employees qualify, it would cost slightly less than $200,000.

Several RFTA employees required extensive hospitalization and they might face significant health effects in the future after getting infected with COVID-19.

“If, by providing a $500 bonus for our employees to get vaccinated, we can help reduce the potential of someone else at RFTA becoming severely ill or worse, it will have been worth it, in my estimation,” Blankenship wrote in an email to The Times.

The expense of the incentives will be more than offset by federal funds RFTA received as part of the coronavirus relief effort. RFTA will receive $19.25 million through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2021. The grant is intended to make up for added expenses and lost revenues tied to the pandemic.

RFTA has taken several steps to try to keep employees — drivers, in particular — safe during the pandemic. Steps include limiting contact between drivers and passengers, thoroughly cleaning buses after every shift and requiring masks. RFTA did not offer hazard pay for drivers and other frontline workers this winter.

“In some ways, the $500 vaccination incentive bonus might be considered a bit of hazard pay bonus as well,” Blankenship said via email. “The bonus is a higher than normal amount, which is a reflection of the value RFTA places on the health of its employees and how vital we consider what they do is to the health of the organization and the mobility of the public we serve.”

scondon@aspentimes.com

Aspen Institute dishes out food for thought during the age of coronavirus

People dine outside of Bear Den in Aspen on a warm spring afternoon on Friday, April 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

The Aspen Institute and some restaurant-industry heavyweights have rolled out a set of universal guidelines for both dining establishments and the people who frequent them in the COVID-19 era.

Called “Safety First: Protecting Workers and Diners as Restaurants Reopen,” the industry standards were put together by the Institute’s Food and Safety Program in collaboration with José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen, the James Beard Foundation, the National Restaurant Association, the Independent Restaurant Coalition, and One Fair Wage.

Safety First includes a Diner Code of Conduct and what’s expected from restaurant patrons while dining indoors, Our Covid Pledge for restaurant owners and operators, and a set of ventilation guidelines for restaurants.

“What we found is that if we kept things sufficiently general and high level, and ‘here’s what you absolutely need to do,’ that advice doesn’t change much,” said Corby Kummer, executive director of the Food and Society Program.

For restaurants in the Pitkin County area, the guidelines closely reflect what a number of them already are doing to stay open and serve as many patrons as restrictions allow.

“It’s great to know that we’re doing a lot of these things already in Colorado,” said Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim director of public health.

For patrons of restaurants, Safety First includes a code of conduct for people eating out at a time when their behavior can reduce the risk of spreading the virus.


Safety First is a meaty document — 74 pages and all, including an appendix — but some of its key information is boiled down into one-page summaries for restaurants to publicly display.

“We hope that diners will feel safer and more confident if they see a code of conduct and the COVID pledge,” Kummer said.

Its release comes at a time when restaurants throughout the country are gradually opening to more people as vaccinations become more widely available and case counts lower. However, similar to how public health officials remain adamant people remain vigilant to reduce the risk of the virus’ spread, so too does the “Safety First” document.

“We’ve fine-tuned Safety First to meet the on-the-ground needs of restaurants as they reopen as quickly, economically, and safely as possible — translating the science of health officials and engineering associations into the day-to-day realities of businesses small and large,” Kummer wrote in an introduction to Safety First. “That’s what restaurants told us they needed, and health departments told us too.”

Safety First also cautions people who’ve been vaccinated against easing up on their preventative behavior.

“Because it is not known whether vaccination prevents spread of COVID — and because questions remain about the effectiveness of currently available vaccines against all emerging variants — people who are vaccinated still need to wear masks, practice physical distancing, frequently wash or sanitize their hands, and follow all other recommendations for preventing spread of COVID.”

On Saturday, restaurants in the Aspen area were allowed to expand their indoor-dining capacities with Pitkin County’s return to yellow-level health restrictions.

Yellow allows restaurants to operate at 50% of their posted capacity limit, while the figure cannot top 150 patrons per room and final drinks are served at 1 a.m. Orange, the level under which the county had been for since March 24, held restaurants to 25% capacity, a maximum of 50 people per room, and last call for alcohol at midnight.

A state program, however, allows restaurants that meet rigorous criteria addressing COVID-19 to operate a color level down from the one currently in place.


As of Friday, 56 restaurants in Pitkin County were certified under the 5 Star State Certification Program for Colorado, which permitted them to operate under the more relaxed yellow level level when the county was mired in orange.

Five-star businesses “are required to do daily employee symptoms and exposure checks,” explained JoAnna Coffey, the county’s consumer and employee health protection supervisor. As well, certified restaurants screen customers for symptoms and record their names and contact information in the event of exposure.

The Safety First document emphasized, “All workers — restaurant workers and visiting workers — should be briefly screened for COVID upon arrival at the restaurant. Screening should aim to determine if workers (a) have been diagnosed with COVID, have tested positive for COVID (even if they do not have symptoms), or have had fever or other symptoms of COVID, in the past 10 days; (b) currently have a current fever (temperature of 100.4° F or 38° C or greater); or (c) have had close contact with someone with COVID in the past 14 days.”

Aspen restaurateur Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s: An American Bar & Grill, said the Safety First documents covers a lot of ground but he would have preferred to see it more condensed.

He did, however, note two positive takeaways from Safety First, including its suggestion that restaurants “consider creating separate teams of staff to work on alternate days or shifts, so if an exposure to COVID occurs on one day or shift, only the team working that day or shift will be affected.”

Said Yeager: “The greatest risk is an exposure that quarantines too great of a number of employees that the restaurant cannot operate leading to a voluntary closure. This concept is something we have employed all year and would likely keep us up and running should we have a problem.”

As well, the guidelines make no reference to “social distancing.” They instead employ the term “physical distancing.” In this case, words do matter, Yeager suggested.

“Finally, a document using the term ‘physical distancing,’” he said. “Restaurants provide more than a meal, as we provide a much needed social experience and the common usage of ’social distancing’ is harmful. It subconsciously interferes with the premise of hospitality. It’s a human need to feel socially connected and cans still be achieved regardless of being physically distanced.”

One aspect of distancing remains a major challenge for local restaurants, and that’s the space between tables. Whether levels orange, yellow or even blue — which permits 100% indoor capacity — restaurants still must keep tables 6 feet apart under Colorado public health orders.

With the 6-foot restriction, Yeager noted, restaurants in Aspen, because of their size, are limited to how many diners they can accommodate at one time.

Safety First suggests that restaurants could have tables closer together with barriers between them.

“Tables should be spaced to provide at least six feet between adjacent tables, as measured from chairback to chairback,” the document said, but noted, “Tables may be able to be placed more closely if separated by partial Plexiglass or polycarbonate cough and sneeze barriers designed to block horizontal air flow between tables and help divert air upward.”

Sabella said that aspect of the report is something county health might review for consideration.

To help launch the Safety First endeavor, the Institute also received financial support from Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com

Pitkin County’s mass vaccination clinics to end next month

Amy Behrhorst, physicians assistant in employee health at Aspen Valley Hospital, talks with a person before administering the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine in Aspen on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County will demobilize the weekly mass vaccination clinics its been holding in another month in favor of smaller, more accessible sites, an official said Thursday.

The last mass vaccination clinic will be held May 14, said Carly Senst, the county’s vaccination coordinator. In addition, at the end of April, the county will move the remaining clinics from the Benedict Music Tent parking lot to the Buttermilk Ski Area parking lot, she said.

The Buttermilk location is on the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus line, so it will be more convenient for some county residents.

The move to end the mass clinics comes amid a declining demand for vaccinations among Pitkin County residents, while it will also make vaccinations more convenient for those who could not make it to the mass clinics or did not know about them, Senst said. After May 14, vaccinations will likely be handled by primary care physicians, pharmacies and pop-up mobile clinics, she said.

In addition, public health officials plan to extend the Pfizer vaccine — the only one approved for 16 and 17 year olds — to those young adults through partnerships with schools, Senst said.

So far, Pitkin County has administered 11,600 vaccine doses, said Jordana Sabella, the county’s interim public health director. As of Friday’s mass vaccine clinic, 7,000 people will have been fully vaccinated in Pitkin County, she said. That includes a total of 4,500 Pitkin County residents. The rest are those who work in the county or are here for a long-term period of time.

Public health officials have noted a decline in people who sign up for two-dose vaccines like the Pfizer or Moderna versions, Sabella said. Appointments to receive the 1,000 one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines allocated to Pitkin County this week, however, filled in just 20 minutes, she said.

Public health officials have repeatedly said that all three U.S.-approved vaccines are safe and effective.

“The best vaccine you can get is the one offered to you at the time,” Sabella said.

 

Pitkin County returning to lesser Yellow level restrictions starting Saturday

The Aspen Covid Testing lab team works to process COVID-19 tests on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After seven days of declining COVID-19 case counts, Pitkin County will move back to Yellow level restrictions at 6 a.m. Saturday, the county’s public health director said Thursday.

Thursday marked the seventh consecutive day that seven-day case counts were 90 or below, which is the maximum threshold for the Yellow level, said Jordana Sabella. That was enough for her to call state public health officials late Thursday afternoon and confirm that the county can move to the lesser restrictions as of Saturday morning.

“It’s very exciting (and) very encouraging,” Sabella told members of the Pitkin County Board of Health during their regular monthly meeting Thursday.

The move to Yellow will occur despite the fact that the county’s positivity rate, according to the state, remains within Orange level restrictions and above 7.5%, she said. While state public health officials previously said both metrics had to be within Yellow for seven consecutive days, they have since advised county public health officials that the positivity rate metric is more flexible than the case count numbers, Sabella said.

The state moved Pitkin County to Orange level restrictions March 24 after seven-day case counts rose above 90 to Orange levels. That reduced capacity at restaurants and other businesses, excluding retail, to 25%. The move to Yellow increases that capacity to 50%.

The county’s COVID-19 incidence rate — which measures the infection prevalence based on the number of residents — was the highest in the state throughout most of March, said Josh Vance, county epidemiologist. That rate, however, has dropped signficantly in the past week as the number of visitors and mobility in Pitkin County has decreased, he said Thursday.

Still concerning to local public health officials, however, is the number of COVID-19 variant cases detected in the county, Vance said. Pitkin County has the second highest rate of variants among Colorado counties, with 40 cases of the U.K. variant confirmed and 70 suspected, and 18 cases of the California variant confirmed, he said. Pitkin County’s incidence rate of the U.K. variant might have to do with a higher level of detection and surveillance.

The U.K. variant has become the most prevalent COVID-19 strain in the United States, where it is particularly likely to infect children, Vance said. Colorado has confirmed more than 750 cases of the U.K. variant, one of the highest rates in the country, he said.

The state’s color-coded dial restrictions will become voluntary April 15, when counties can decide what level restrictions best suit their communities. But with levels of transmission higher in rural resort communities, Pitkin County, along with Summit, Eagle, Routt, Gunnison and Clear Creek counties, have been trying to work out a uniform set restrictions that best protects those communities, Sabella said.

With those higher transmission rates in mind, members of the Board of Health voted Thursday to follow local public health staff recommendations and require state dial restrictions to remain in effect in Pitkin County until May 27. Both Sabella and Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock have said there is support within those rural resort communities for keeping the restrictions in place through May.

“We’re not there yet,” Peacock said. “There are higher risk factors here.”

Those restrictions will include continuing to require facemasks, business and event safety plans, informal gathering limits of 10 people from two households that will continue to apply to lodging settings, informing guests of the traveler responsibility code and requiring isolation and quarantine rules.

Peacock and public health officials here and in other rural resort communities hope the slowdown in visitors brought on by the spring off-season coupled with rising vaccination rates will allow the summer season to occur without capacity restrictions that have hobbled local restaurants and other businesses.

“Let’s stay the course,” Peacock told members of the Board of Health, “so that when summer rolls around we can relax some restrictions.”

While the state will allow individual counties to create local restrictions, it will retain the ability to rein-in troubled areas that exhibit high hospitalization rates and will require indoor gatherings to remain at 50% capacity or a limit of 500 people.

“I think it makes a lot of sense that we continue to stick with (state dial restrictions),” said Markey Butler, chairwoman of the Board of Health. “I don’t ever want to have to go back into Orange or back into Red (level restrictions).”

Snowmass Town Council extends mask mandate until June

Skiers wearing masks walk into Snowmass Base Village after skiing Fanny Hill on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Keep those masks on when walking outside in one of Snowmass Village’s three commercial hubs: Town Council voted April 5 on second reading to extend an ordinance designating mandatory mask zones in Base Village, the Snowmass Center and the Snowmass Mall through June 7.

Council members Tom Fridstein, Tom Goode, Alyssa Shenk and Bob Sirkus voted in favor of the extension at the regular meeting; Mayor Bill Madsen was the dissenting vote.

That’s sooner than the extension originally specified — it would otherwise have been scheduled to sunset Sept. 30 if council had approved it as-is, according to a copy of the ordinance included with the agenda packet — but later than the staff-recommended expiration date of April 20.

The staff recommendation suggested that the town allow the current Snowmass Village-specific mask mandate to expire April 20; the ordinance requires masks at all times (indoors and outdoors) except when eating or drinking in Snowmass Mall, Base Village and the Snowmass Center.

Instead, staff proposed the town should align with current county, state and federal guidance that mostly requires face coverings indoors and on public transit but not outdoors where 6 feet of distancing is possible.

Consistency was the goal with the staff recommendation, according to Town Manager Clint Kinney and Police Chief Brian Olson.

“The confusion, the difficulty of enforcement, the inconsistencies — I’ll let Brian speak to some of that — just knowing all of that, it just becomes difficult for enforcement,” Kinney said. “Because we put those important rules in place, … we still believe it’s a good idea as quickly as we put them in place to be open-minded about lifting these restrictions.”

Aligning with Pitkin County’s guidance (masks only required outside when 6-foot distancing isn’t possible) could help with enforcement of face covering rules, Olson said. It can be difficult to explain to someone in a parking lot in the Snowmass Center, for instance, that they must wear a mask even though they are far more than 6 feet away from others.

“From an enforcement standpoint we have to be able to defend the practicality and the reasonableness of the law, and to be in compliance from the public,” Olson said. “And it’s a lot easier done when we understand where we are right now and that distancing is the best way to go and the fresh air and masking up when you’re not around anybody else is not as practical as perhaps it was at one time.”

Madsen, who voted to let the mandate expire April 20, also expressed concerns about the consistency and practicality of the current requirements. Under the ordinance, anyone walking outside in the Snowmass Mall, Snowmass Center or Base Village must be masked, but anyone sitting outside dining right next to the sidewalk is exempt.

“The consistency of it just doesn’t really make sense. … It just doesn’t make sense if you’re wearing a mask walking down the mall, but once you’re seated, it’s OK (not to wear one),” Madsen said.

“I just don’t think we’re getting the effect out of it,” he said. “If we wanted to really ensure people’s safety and health, we should tighten up where people are in closer proximity.”

But for several council members, consistency also was an argument against letting the ordinance expire.

“It is really important, as we saw early in the pandemic, to be consistent with what Aspen’s doing, because like I said before, if you’re coming to Aspen, you’re coming to Snowmass, and vice versa,” Councilwoman Alyssa Shenk said. “If they’re keeping their mask zones and then you come to Snowmass and it’s all bets off and you can do whatever you want, I just think that’s even more confusing.”

Aligning with Aspen’s mask policy was in part what led the Snowmass council to approve the extension on first reading March 15. Council members OK’d the first reading while still unsure what Aspen would decide to ensure the second reading would take place before the Snowmass ordinance expired.

Aspen City Council members expressed an interest in extending the city mandate beyond May 1 when they met last month and will consider an extension on first reading at a meeting Tuesday.

Plus, Councilman Bob Sirkus noted, even state guidance is no longer as consistent as it once was.

Gov. Jared Polis extended the statewide mask mandate April 3 — it now lasts through May 2 — but also relaxed face-covering requirements under that mandate.

Counties on the Green level of the state’s COVID-19 dial are exempt from mask requirements in many businesses and stores, and for counties that fall into the Blue level or above on the COVID-19 dial, mask requirements in most indoor public spaces apply only if there are 10 or more unvaccinated people in the room. (There are some exceptions where the mandate still universally applies, like schools, hospitals and personal facilities. Businesses can still set their own mask requirements.)

“The state seems to be going in the opposite direction from my perspective,” Sirkus said. “It actually gave me a lot of anxiety when Polis came out last month and said we’re going to drop outdoor masking and the only thing we’re going to care about is indoors and public transportation. I was really worried about that.”

Sirkus expressed concerns about the spikes in local COVID-19 cases that have occurred after most major holidays and vacation periods when the area sees an uptick in visitors; removing the outdoor mask requirement in designated mask zones would be unlikely to help that situation, he said.

However small a difference mask-wearing makes in outdoor spaces, it would still be worthwhile to continue to implement an indoor and outdoor mask mandate in Snowmass Village’s three busiest hubs, Sirkus said.

“It’s low, low risk — but it’s still risk,” Sirkus said.

kwilliams@aspentimes.com

Isis Theater expected to start rolling in May

The Isis Theater in downtown Aspen, the only commercial cinema in the Roaring Fork Valley, will open next month after being shuttered for 10 months due to COVID-19.

“We are hoping for late May,” said David Corwin, president of Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Theaters, which operates the Isis Theater. “We are gradually getting it together.”

The Isis closed initially in mid-March 2020 when the pandemic hit, and then re-opened in August only to shut down again in November.

Since the novel coronavirus swept across the world just over a year ago, the movie industry has changed significantly with a larger focus on online and on-demand streaming, and less production for the big screen.

Many new releases have been postponed as production companies are waiting for theaters to reopen.

“There’s not a lot of significant product left so we are guided by what’s going to be available,” Corwin said. “There’s not much between now and late May.”

He named significant titles like “A Quiet Place Part II,” “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Black Widow” to be part of the big screen summer lineup.

The Movieland theater owner in El Jebel said in December they are looking for renters for that seven-screen space and may not reopen, and the independently owned single-screen Crystal Theatre in Carbondale remains closed.

Corwin said he recognizes that people’s habits have changed when it comes to watching movies but he hopes the traditional theater experience is still appealing.

“People are watching anything and everything right now but I think it will get back to normal,” he said. “We are looking forward to welcoming you back soon.”

How the back rent of $186,000 is going to be paid is yet to be determined, since the city owns the theater portion of the Isis building on Hopkins Avenue.

The city partners with Aspen Film, where the nonprofit acts as the landlord and collects monthly lease payments from Metropolitan Theaters.

Aspen Film also has used the four-screen theater to produce short- and full-length film festivals.

City Finance Director Pete Strecker said Tuesday the last Isis rent payment to the municipal government was in March 2020.

Aspen Film’s rent is $15,649 a month, according to its lease with the city.

Aspen City Council last summer allowed Aspen Film to extend Metropolitan’s lease through January.

Council also deferred the rent payments by Aspen Film to the city from April 2020 through August, which equated to just under $80,000.

Council at the time agreed to allow up to two years to collect on deferred rent on the Isis.

The city took the $49,000 it had received from Aspen Film for the first three months of 2020, as well as $80,000 from the general fund, to make the September semi-annual payment on the debt service on the building, which currently equates to $2.1 million.

Strecker said an interest payment of $27,184 was due this spring, which also was paid out of the general fund.

Council is expected to approve that expenditure later this month during annual spring budget supplemental requests.

The city relies on Aspen Film’s rent to pay back the 30-year certificates of participation, or COPs, to investors who backed the Aspen government’s $7.5 million acquisition of the property in 2008. The partnership was created with the intention of preserving the theater.

Council has not given direction on rent deferral beyond September, nor has it weighed in on a lease extension for Metropolitan Theaters past January.

The situation, caused by the pandemic, has been the subject of multiple executive sessions with council.

“We are keeping council apprised and trying to get a solution to meet the community’s needs,” Strecker said. “I know they are trying to come up with a plan.”

csackariason@aspentimes.com

 

Colorado’s resort counties trying to adopt uniform summer COVID restrictions

Masked pedestrians walk through the walking mall on Hyman Avenue in Aspen on Tuesday, March 9, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

Pitkin County officials have been meeting with their counterparts from other rural resort communities to try to figure out a uniform plan for COVID-19 restrictions after state-mandated restrictions become voluntary later this month, an official said Tuesday.

The state is expected to make the color-coded COVID-19 Dial restrictions for counties voluntary April 16, with two likely exceptions, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said. Those exceptions are expected to include maintaining limits on indoor, high-risk environments at 50% capacity and no more than 500 people, and having a “snapback” provision to put dial requirements back in place if local hospital capacity exceeds an established threshold, he said.

Beyond those two exceptions, counties will be able to adopt COVID-19 Dial restrictions or not as they see fit after April 16, Peacock said.

But in order to avoid different patchwork restrictions in each rural resort county — which are generally experiencing higher COVID incidence and variant rates than other counties — officials from those areas are discussing adopting similar rules to make it easier on visitors.

The first idea is to adopt the current Dial restrictions through May 27, which has garnered some support within rural resort communities, he said. Then, post-May 27 (which starts Memorial Day Weekend), resort communities would move away from capacity limits currently outlined in the Dial restrictions while at the same time continuing to emphasize protective measures like wearing facemasks, encouraging social distancing between different households and requiring event safety plans, Peacock said.

Resort communities also would allow transit providers to make their own rules about utilizing those protective measures, he said.

Members of the Pitkin County Board of Health are expected to discuss those proposed changes at their meeting Thursday afternoon.

Another concern among resort communities are vaccine passports, Peacock said. Counties want to avoid different passport rules for each county and would prefer such a mandate to come from the state or federal authorities. The state is looking at a vaccine passport program, he said.

In other COVID-related news Tuesday:

• COVID-19 case counts are gradually coming down in Pitkin County, though state-reported numbers do not yet indicate that a move back to Yellow level restrictions is imminent, Peacock said.

Pitkin County must have seven consecutive days within Yellow levels – a seven-day case count of 90 or less and a positivity rate of 7.5% or less – before the state will move the county from Orange to Yellow.

But according to state-reported numbers, the county’s seven-day case count has been under 90 only since Saturday, he said. In addition, the local positivity rate remains high and has been hovering around 9% for most of the past 10 days, according to state-reported metrics.

• Pitkin County received 1,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week, which will be doled out to residents 18 years old and older at a vaccination clinic Friday. The county ordered 3,500 J&J doses, according to spokeswoman Tracy Trulove.

Pitkin County also received 110 doses of the Moderna vaccine and 264 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, though those will be used for second doses, Trulove said in an email Monday.

Friday’s clinic at the Benedict Music Tent parking lot will run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. An appointment is required for anyone going to the clinic. To register for an appointment and for more information, go to covid19.pitkincounty.com.

 

Basalt, Eagle County governments ramping up in-person services

Eagle County government has reopened its offices in El Jebel.
Scott Condon/The Aspen Times

After more than a year of keeping offices closed to the public and conducting public meetings via video conference due to the coronavirus pandemic, the governments of Eagle County and Basalt are showing signs of in-person life.

Eagle County government has reopened offices in the Eagle and Roaring Fork valleys. County Manager Jeff Shroll also announced Tuesday that a program called Roaring Fork Fridays has resumed in El Jebel. The program gives constituents in the Roaring Fork Valley portion of Eagle County a chance to meet face-to-face with a revolving lineup of elected officials, top administrators and department heads.

Roaring Fork Fridays was suspended during the pandemic. Shroll said it was restarted last week because it is a good way to keep in touch with residents in the western portion of the county. El Jebel is about 50 miles from the county courthouse.

“There were days that were slow and days that were, ‘Holy smoke, there’s a lot of people here,’” Shroll said of Roaring Fork Fridays.

On slow days, he and other county officials use opportunities to “touch base with partners,” such as Basalt and Crown Mountain officials.

Officials dedicate time from 9 a.m. to noon Fridays for “walk-up” hours for the public at the Eagle County office building and community center in El Jebel.

Meanwhile, Basalt town government is inching closer to reconnecting to the public face-to-face.

“Town staff is looking at the timing for returning to in-person council meetings and reopening Town Hall,” town manager Ryan Mahoney wrote in an April 2 weekly report. “We believe that we can be back in person for our first June meeting.”

Shroll and Mahoney said large public gatherings for meetings of interest still present a problem.

Shroll said the county commissioners’ meetings and planning and zoning commission meetings will continue to be held remotely for an unspecified time. That includes meetings held by the Roaring Fork Valley Regional Planning Commission, which advises the county commissioners on land use matters in the western part of the county. The public can monitor and participate in meetings via video conference.

Mahoney wrote in his report that Basalt will maintain a hybrid system where there are capacity limits for in-person attendance of council meetings by the public and access available remotely.

Both Eagle County and Basalt are working on high-profile issues that would benefit from public gatherings. Basalt has launched its Basalt Forward 2030 initiative where it is taking stock of its facilities and planning for the future. A key part of the process will be getting public input to set priorities. The Town Council will determine if it wants to put a funding question on the ballot in November, so public input will be vital.

Eagle County has launched a process where it is collecting public input on how open land adjacent to Crown Mountain Park in El Jebel should be used in the future. A consultant for the county held “listening sessions” this spring on ideas for future use of 70 acres owned by the U.S. Forest Service and 6 acres owned by the county. The sessions sought input from stakeholders who were invited and members of the public who asked to be included.

A report summarizing the input will be presented to the Eagle County commissioners at their meeting at 2:30 p.m. May 4, Shroll said. Public comment on the uses will be collected as part of the process after the report is released to the commissioners, the county has announced.

scondon@aspentimes.com