Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock told elected officials Tuesday night that soon, anyone visiting the county will have to sign a legal affidavit in accordance with local public health orders.
The announcement came during a slew of COVID-19 updates in a joint session between the Pitkin County Commissioners and Aspen City Council. The meeting’s discussions touched on testing availability, state-mandated reductions in gathering sizes and business capacity, as well as a COVID-19 vaccine being introduced into the community as early as mid-December.
The full, five-page visitor affidavit will be available online beginning Dec. 4. It requires anyone staying one night or more in Pitkin County who resides outside of Pitkin, Eagle or Garfield counties to sign the legal document, affirming they have had a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours prior to arrival. Alternatively, they must quarantine for a full 14 days — or until a negative COVID-19 test is obtained locally.
The upper valley has seen a slew of COVID-19 testing sites come online in the last few weeks and is now able to administer 400 to 500 tests daily through December, using leftover funding from the CARES Act that will expire at the end of the year. The newest testing site is located at the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport, near the cell phone lot.
Peacock told the elected board and council members that the affidavit requirement is a step Pitkin County is taking above and beyond what the state mandates for the “Orange/High Risk” level in outbreak status that the region is now under. But the lack of continuity throughout the state can create issues for local governments.
“One of our challenges is Pitkin County is the only county in Colorado that will have these types of visitor requirements,” he said.
Looking to a winter season that has already seen mainstay local restaurants shutter their doors or announce they will be take-out only, the representatives expressed trepidation for the local economy in a COVID climate.
But commissioner Greg Poschman said making a mark in having the strictest visitor policy statewide might be appealing to tourists this winter.
“If we are assuring visitors and locals and workers in our community alike that we are doing everything we can to assure safety and health by advocating for this testing and demanding it from people,I think it's going to give people a better sense of security when they come here — and that might actually be something that allows us to save the winter,” Poschman said.
The affidavit places financial liability onto visitors who might enter the community while infected with or, worse, spread COVID-19 during their visit.
Peacock said the county is working with local lodges and rental properties to have the affidavit sent out to guests before they arrive. The airlines that serve ASE have also agreed to include messaging about the affidavit requirements on incoming flights.
However, even in the winter, many visitors to Aspen and Snowmass Village arrive in personal vehicles.
“Most of our guests still arrive rubber tire,” Peacock advised the elected officials.
If a traveler arrives without having proof of a recent negative test, the quarantine measures go into effect, as Peacock said the county is not set up to turn people away.
“We understand it is not practical to send people back home,” he said.
The county is working on ways to enforce the affidavit further, including the potential to send its consumer protection teams out into the community for “spot checks.” Peacock explained that such checks would mean the COVID task force teams would conduct random samplings — and require those selected to provide evidence of their negative COVID-19 tests.
Unfortunately, he said others may get caught cheating on the back end as contact tracers work to identify the chain of spread, if and when community members test positive this winter.
“Frankly, we are not going to catch everyone. It is not a perfect net, but it is a better net than none,” he said.
In addition to the affidavit, Pitkin County health orders are stricter than state requirements when it comes to group gathering sizes at both indoor and outdoor events, has put in a 10 p.m. closing time for all non-essential businesses and bumped up last call at restaurants to 9:30 p.m.
The measures are in place as the county sits at the brink of a level “Red/Severe Risk” declaration from the state, which would result in a shuttering of all interior dining and office and gym capacities reduced to 10%.
Peacock told councilmembers and commissioners last night that the county was recently informed of a change to one of the three metrics that dictates a county’s rating on the state’s COVID-19 dial.
Previously, hospital capacity data were measured by available beds in a region. Locally, Aspen Valley Hospital has been staying in a comfortable zone for patient intake availability; however, the county was bumped up to a yellow/cautious zone after a Pitkin County resident was hospitalized in Denver.
“The hospitalization data is anyone who identifies a Pitkin County address as their main address that is admitted into any hospital in Colorado,” Peacock said.
The change means that even if AVH holds steady in its patient capacity, the county could be kicked up to further restrictions based on residents being hospitalized elsewhere. Along with available hospital beds, the state also looks at the number of new cases in a community and the percent of tests that result in positive readings. If two of the three metrics trigger a higher risk, then the dial moves up a measure.
Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury said with two of the three metrics now teetering into the red, it is hard to see a situation in which the county is moved down a notch instead of public health measures being escalated.
“It’s hard to see a scenario where we move into yellow,” she said. “For me, that's just the real writing on the wall. The incident numbers are really alarming.”
The state shows that Pitkin County’s case count is at a rate of 687 per 100,000 residents over the last two weeks. All but four counties statewide join Pitkin in the red zone for incident rates.
“Our incidence rate is one of the lower rates in the state, which is startling.” Peacock said.
On the more optimistic side, Peacock said members of the community may begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines this month.
He stressed that public, community-wide vaccination will not be available until well into 2021, but the state has sent a vaccine administration plan to the federal government that spells out a hierarchy of distribution once the shots become available. The first members of the community likely to see the vaccine are frontline health care workers.
The representatives of the county and city also touched on any additional ways the two governments could support local restaurants. While the city has offered rent relief, allowed for building variances for covered outdoor seating and allowed encroachment onto the public right-of-way and parking spots, city councilmember Rachel Richards said the pot of relief money is drying up.
Commissioner Patti Clapper responded that the public health orders limiting seating in restaurants is not only hurting the businesses but could be behind the spike in COVID-19 cases. She said contact tracers point to private, multi-household gatherings as the leading source of transmission locally.
“We are pushing people into small gatherings. We need to look at the whole picture; we need to look at the unintended consequences,” she said. “The restaurants are doing a great job.
I think we need to give them some credit for that.”