Pitkin County leadership dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic made an appearance at an Aspen City Council work session Monday night to present updates to the public health strategy for the continued lifting of distancing restrictions. While the city has passed several emergency ordinances, including mandatory masks, it is the county overall that has set the public health orders in response to COVID-19.
County Manager Jon Peacock told council that the novel coronavirus was an unexpected threat that will continue to test the public health response of the community.
“Previous pandemics were not nearly as lethal or contagious as COVID-19. Nationally we are not really set up to deal with COVID-19 the way we are able to respond to the flu,” Peacock said. “Medically, we remain relatively defenseless.”
The mandates that Pitkin County’s board of health made, similar to communities throughout the country, were an immediate response to containing the spread of the virus. Those included the shutdown of dining at restaurants and closing all retail and lodging in the county.
“This comes with unprecedented social and economic repercussions that really are unsustainable for us,” Peacock said.
Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann, who issued the initial stay-at-home emergency order, told council that as restrictions are lifted, the balance between the economy and public health will continue to skew away from containing the virus.
“As we start to lift the public health orders we are going to see a spike,” she said.
“We might even see some mortality in our community.”
The county has released a roadmap to recovery that outlines incremental changes to the public health order. Each phase allows an increase in interaction and group size, provided that COVID-19 cases remain at a manageable level for the health care system. However, Councilmember Rachel Richards criticized the county for the current lack of specificity on a reopening timeline.
“Our public wants real dates, they want specificity. They are dying without specificity,” she said.
While May 27 is the goal for a limited-capacity reopening of restaurants and hotels, the date of the next phase following that is unknown because it will be based on community testing that shows the public is containing the spread.
Richards said that business owners’ mental health is suffering by not being able to plan for things like bringing employees back to work, or the number of customers they can expect. She said the resources allocated to mental health are not sufficient to handle the stress the business owners are experiencing. She downplayed seeking counseling as a resource for those facing economic troubles.
“The real mental health problem is knowing you are going to lose your business, your house and your savings. And this is really adding up for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of our residents now,” Richards said. “They are not going to call a hotline, because those things are not going to be wished away with a little bit of talking.”
The county has adopted seven goals in the recovery phase from the crisis. One, titled “proactively re-imagine the future and build community health, social and economic resilience” specifically addresses mental health.
Councilmembers Ward Hauenstein and Skippy Mesirow also expressed frustration with the county team. Hauenstein focused his questions on testing, and what type of information the county will use to determine if outbreaks are being caused by the looser restrictions.
“I feel that our ability to control the destiny of Aspen is largely in the hands of the public health department of Pitkin County,” Hauenstein said.
But Councilmember Ann Mullins praised the work of the county officials, pointing out that whereas Pitkin County once had one of the biggest per-capita clusters of COVID-19 in the state, it has now gained A ratings for its public health response and low infection rate.
“To my fellow councilmembers, we are being way too hard on these people,” Mullins said.
Mesirow said asking hard questions is not the same as criticism. He brought up the prospect of using technology to assist in tracing public interactions, a suggestion he has been broadly criticized for in recent weeks.
Koenemann told him that when a positive case is confirmed, the investigation into the other contacts that should be isolating will be conducted through human interaction.
“We recognize that technology could support but not supplant it,” she said.
The county is currently shopping for software that could assist in gathering data when tracing positive cases. Koenemann said if the county decides to employ an app-based tracking system it would likely be in line with decisions being made at the state level. She said the method would most likely be voluntary, in which case the county would not role it out without public support.
“We are doing our due diligence and asking what could be an advantage to our community,” Koenemann said.
The county is also recognizing the threat to public health that visitors will bring. By July, when air traffic is expected to ramp up, there will be a plan in place to screen passengers prior to entering the terminal at the Aspen airport. Peacock said interfacing with guests arriving by car will be much more difficult, but that there are no plans in place for checkpoint screening prior to entering the county. He said he hopes hotels and lodges can be a partner in informing tourists about public health laws and the need to quarantine if symptomatic.
The county has received over 500 applications from businesses that have submitted their reopening plan for approval. As those are accepted, stores will get a sign they can hang for the public to see that they are doing their due diligence to keep their shops safe.
The full business safety plan, links to frequently asked questions, and the COVID-19 hotline for community members to ask specific questions are all available on the county website.
Mayor Torre closed the meeting by saying that the two governments and all officials involved in the public health response and reopening need to be “rowing together” to get the best results.
“We all want the same thing, which is a safe return to the Aspen we love,” Torre said