A day after Tuesday’s four-hour health board meeting during which officials elected to move Pitkin County into red-level COVID-19 restrictions, thus shuttering indoor dining, the dust had far from settled.
Quite the opposite: a group of Aspen restaurant industry leaders have come together to make their feelings known about the decision, which takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Sunday — namely, that they intend to continue stirring the proverbial pot in hopes of reversing the course of action set Tuesday.
“We’re not done fighting; we’re not done operating. We will be standing at the end of this, and collectively, we can be very constructive in the solutions to this problem, but what happened yesterday was unbelievably insulting,” said Jimmy Yeager, the proprietor of his namesake restaurant in Aspen.
Far from causing unnecessary trouble, though, the vocal dissenters maintain that much is at stake, a point with which public health officials involved in enacting the harsher restrictions didn’t disagree.
“We’d like an outcry to reverse this decision. At the end of the day, we do not think this decision is right, nor is fair, nor is productive. As a matter of fact, we think this decision is counterproductive,” Yeager said. “If last call is 8 p.m. and people are coming to Aspen to ski and have an Aspen experience, what do you think is going to happen? It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to do a quick leap to where people are going to go and party.”
Those comments were made during an interview with Oliver Sharpe on the Daily Update Tuesday; joining him were Chris Lanter, of Cache Cache and Home Team BBQ; Wendy Mitchell, of Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop and Hooch Craft Cocktail Bar; Samantha Cordts-Pearce, of CP Restaurant Group; and Dave Ellsweig, of Campo de Fiori.
Lanter echoed Yeager’s sentiment regarding a sense of inequity about which sectors will shoulder the brunt of the red-level restrictions — namely, if restaurants are limited to outdoor seating during the year’s coldest season and curbside and delivery services, which must cease at 8 p.m., but lodging companies and other tourist-serving industries are able to continue in a less-reduced capacity, it will create an imbalance ripe for undermining COVID-19 containment efforts.
“If the board of health is right — if the incidence rate is going to drop in the next two weeks — then I’ll be the first to admit that I was wrong,” he said. “I just don’t believe the answer is taking out the restaurant industry while the hotels continue operating at 50%, retail continues to operate at 50%. The mountain, 50%. Airplanes, 100%. RFTA’s still moving on. We’re kind of a low-hanging group. The board of health couldn’t figure out a solution, and their solution is just to come at us. I would like to see the restaurant industry just be treated equally as the other industries.”
Neither Aspen Mayor Torre, who also serves on the health board, nor Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock agreed with that assessment, however sympathetic they were to those most affected by Tuesday’s decision.
“As far as the conditions of closures, it was not just restaurant-specific — they are not a targeted entity in this. We are working, right now, we are working very hard to have a certification program set up and ready to deploy as soon as possible, and probably sooner than some people think,” Torre said of the state’s 5 Star Program, which encourages businesses to implement more cautious safety measures in exchange for being “certified” to operate with lesser capacity restrictions than required by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s COVID-19 dial.
“I know this is very difficult, but what we are trying to do is not have a closure that lasts any longer than it has to, and certainly not for the duration of the season,” the mayor continued.
Peacock, too, underscored that the health board’s decision — which followed staff’s recommendation to move all sectors into the red level of restrictions — follows guidelines set by the state, and in fact, the earlier “orange-plus-plus” designation made an exception for restaurants by allowing them to continue indoor dining at 25% capacity.
“There’s no one that is arbitrarily targeting one industry or not; the goal here is to get our incidence rates down, and so we have been following the state dial and the restriction within the state dial,” he said Tuesday evening. “You can look at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], there’s a lot of studies out there that lay out that when you’re in an enclosed, indoor space, unmasked, with people from different households, your risk of infection increases. When the state was setting up the dial and the restrictions, they were taking those different risk levels into account.”
But it’s more than just a question of viral transmission, the restaurateurs contended Tuesday, all of whom emphasized that Aspen Valley Hospital’s capacity remains, as it has since the beginning of the pandemic, manageable.
“The hospitals are not overrun. When the hospitals are overrun, I’ll reverse my opinion, but right now, we need to be open,” Mitchell said.
Lanter cited a survey conducted by Michael Goldberg, co-owner of Matsuhisa, that indicated upwards of 1,500 people may lose employment by closing down indoor dining in Pitkin County when lamenting for his own staff.
“Look at what this does to all our employees — their mental health, are they going to be able to pay rent? — it just has a huge ripple effect for them more so than us as restaurant owners.”
Cordts-Pearce confirmed Tuesday that her company anticipates laying off 130 people in Aspen alone as a result of the health board decision to move into the red level.
“They have nowhere else to go; it’s very unfortunate, and we honestly don’t feel that it was a fair decision made by the [health board]; we don’t feel our voices were heard,” she said. “ I don't know that they really understand what the decision that they’ve made has led to.”
Peacock, however, pointed out that it was exactly the weight of the decision and all those potentially impacted that led to more than 1,000 people being on the call Tuesday and the meeting’s hours-long duration. It was more than restaurant industry leaders who spoke; it was also health care providers and people who have seen firsthand the potential devastation the novel coronavirus can cause.
“It’s not just public health versus restaurants; it’s trying to balance all of these things,” he said.
Still, Peacock hopes those who are in a financial position to do so spend their money supporting restaurants in the capacities at which they’re allowed to operate.
“Support local businesses. For those that are open, we need to be doing takeout. Maybe those dollars we didn’t get to spend on vacation, for those of us who were working, let’s double down on supporting our local businesses,” he said.
As for what the municipalities are doing to support the business community, Peacock pointed to the most recent round of Paycheck Protection Program funds and Small Business Administration loans that exist.
“I really hope that businesses will take advantage of the PPP, of SBA loans that are out there. There’s some grant funding through the state, through the Department of Local Affairs. We’ve put all this information out, and I know the chambers are distributing it. We’ll be working with the Aspen Community Foundation on a business grant program to provide some further relief,” he said. “Does this make up for the loss of business? Probably not, but we’re really pulling for our local businesses to survive.”