masks sign

An electronic road sign just before the entrance to Aspen roundabout on eastbound Highway 82 informs travelers of Pitkin County’s public health orders, including wearing a mask when indoors or within 6 feet of another person for more than 10 minutes, even outdoors.

Pitkin County will not be joining the rest of the state in allowing bars to reopen at 25% capacity, or up to 50 people indoors, for at least a few more weeks.

While undoubtedly financially disappointing for the county’s 15 establishments that will be directly impacted — that is, they will have to remain closed — public health and medical officials repeatedly cited COVID-19 case data when making recommendations Thursday to the county’s health board for continuing the slow, phased reopening process.

“This is not the best timing right now for opening things up,” said Dr. Kim Levin, who in addition to working as an emergency department physician at both Aspen Valley and Valley View hospitals also serves as the county’s medical officer.

“What's happening over the past two weeks is concerning on two major points,” she continued. “There is a definite increase, an obvious increase in numbers that are making everyone uncomfortable, and secondly is the rate at which it’s rising — which is very rapidly and sharp.”

Pitkin County recorded five new positive cases of COVID-19 on Thursday alone.

Though hospital capacity at Aspen Valley Hospital remains “comfortable,” Levin continued, the increase in people with symptoms seeking testing pushes that threshold. And while only two hospital staff members were out sick last week with COVID-like symptoms, that number more than doubled this week.

“We’re actually at five — one went back today — but last week, we were at two, so there is a sharp increase in terms of health care workers,” Levin said, noting that the status of health care workers is among the metrics public health officials use when determining how safely a local economy can pursue reopening.

“We do not feel comfortable at the hospital; we see this rapid rate and we see it moving in that [more cautious] direction,” she continued. “It’s really basically sounding an alarm for us and sounding an alarm for everybody in the community that the numbers are rising.”

Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann underscored it’s not just the Aspen-Snowmass area that’s of concern. The entire Roaring Fork is interconnected, and with Aspen’s tourism numbers continuing to increase, there are national trends worthy of attention, too.

“We know that the virus is here; we are learning to live with it until we have an effective vaccine that’s widely distributed throughout the nation. As much as we’d like Pitkin County to just be Pitkin County, we are interconnected across the valley; we’re interconnected across the state; we’re interconnected across the country,” she said.

According to data presented by epidemiologist Charlie Spickert to the health board on Thursday, visitors from Texas, California and Florida together represent 20% of the overall risk of infection to Pitkin County residents. Texas tourists alone were ranked No. 3 in the list.

On Wednesday, when 38,115 new cases were reported nationwide in a single-day record, those three states led the way.

“We might look at ways to ensure that people coming here come here symptom free. Depending on where things go, relook at other strategies that we might employ to limit that risk,” Spickert said.

Levin said that the medical advisory team had discussed just that and recommended an amendment be made to the public health order requiring incoming visitors to be free of symptoms for at least 10 days before arriving.

“If you look at what New York and New Jersey is considering doing — 14-day quarantine for any visitor coming from a state with numbers on the rise — this is kind of a similar but much softer way of doing that,” she said. “You are welcome to come in, but please be symptom free for 10 days before coming here.”

She relayed an anecdote from one of her emergency department colleagues at Valley View Hospital who said that 100% of Texas residents who were tested Wednesday at the Glenwood Springs health care facility tested positive for COVID-19.

“Four for four,” she recounted.

Garfield County has seen a particularly sharp increase in the number of new cases — which recorded an additional nine COVID-19 positive test results Thursday after a week that saw more than 40.

Six patients are currently hospitalized with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus at Valley View Hospital, Spickert said.

Aspen Valley Hospital, on the other hand, does not have any COVID-19 patients — but that could change in the coming weeks, Levin emphasized.

“I just want to really remind everybody that hospitalizations do not move in parallel with community spread — there is definitely a lag time, or delay, when we see people who are really ill from this virus,” she said. “Hospital data, we won’t even expect to see this right now — we’ll expect to see this in 10 days or two weeks.”

It’s that lag time between a loosened public health restriction going into effect and case data becoming available that underscores the reasoning behind waiting to reopen bars, Koenemann said.

“We’ve been doing this rolling basis; maybe we need to slow our roll a little bit, giving ourselves a little more time,” she said.

Still, the county opted to move ahead with its next stage of its “Roadmap to Reopening.” Starting today, drive-in movies will be added to entertainment options, as well as museums and residential camps.

Additionally and importantly, commercial lodging can now reopen at 100%, Koenemann noted.

“This has been a place where we’ve been more restrictive than the state overall,” she said.

There was overwhelming support from health board members to reopen lodging to full capacity. The general sentiment, expressed by several people throughout Thursday’s meeting, is that hotels are better equipped to ensure safe environments and communicate public health orders with guests upon arrival and throughout their stay.

Communication will become even more important, Levin emphasized, since Pitkin County has opted to wait at least two weeks but possibly four before aligning with the state and allowing bars to reopen in even limited capacities.

It also will be imperative in continuing to shift the public’s overall mentality regarding wearing masks and social distancing as preventative measures. Spickert referenced the recent outbreak among teenagers in Basalt and their reported lack of cooperation with Eagle County contact tracers when discussing the need to remain vigilant in protecting public health, even when politically unpopular. Several health board members expressed dismay at their personal observations around town.

Koenemann noted that while Pitkin County had at one time been ranked No. 1 in the state — earning an A-plus rating from New York-based Unacast’s nationally accepted “COVID-19 Social Distancing Scoreboard” — its current grade is a D-minus.

Much like the increase in cases, that too, is a concerning trend, everyone involved with Thursday’s meeting relayed. Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock described the change needed as a cultural one and charged local leaders with more visibly spearheading those efforts.

“This is a cultural issue, and cultures don’t change quickly. But they do change with persistence; they change with a consistent leadership voice,” he said. “We’ve got to be the water that’s grinding the rock down here and having our eyes on the long game — because this is for the next 18 to 24 months.”

Megan Tackett is a reporter for the Aspen Daily News. She can be reached at megan@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @MeganTackett10.