Aspen youth hockey

Hockey players warm up at the Lewis Ice Arena in the Aspen Rec Center. On Thursday, Pitkin County Board of Health members supported maintaining the indoor mask order for youth hockey for the time being.

For the time being, Aspen youth hockey players will need to keep their masks on during games and practices.

On Thursday, the Pitkin County Board of Health expressed support for including hockey players under age 18 with the rest of the general public under the current indoor-mask mandate, given that COVID-19 transmissions remain high. Board members were briefed on responses to a community survey in which multiple parents asked if the youth hockey league could obtain an exemption from the order while on the ice and the bench.

“Every rink in the state allows kids — adults, too, I suppose — to not wear masks while they’re actively participating in a sport, ice hockey in this case,” said Scott Writer, who wrote to the board on behalf of the junior hockey community. “We’re asking for Pitkin County to be like everywhere else.”

Youth organizations are not eligible for Pitkin County’s Fully Vaccinated Facilities Program unless they are granted an exemption. The program gives businesses and facilities the right not to require indoor masks if vaccination standards are met.

The county allowed Aspen’s adult hockey league to join the program in late December, which means the adult players don’t have to wear masks during games. But Public Health Director Jordana Sabella has recommended that no exceptions be made for the younger players.

“The recommendation is to maintain the current public health order and mask requirements with no additional exceptions, including the exception for youth hockey players on the ice,” Sabella said.

“The reasons behind this recommendation are that we are currently seeing a surge in the incidence rate in Pitkin County and Colorado. Several key employers — the school, the hospital — have expressed concern to us about the number of staff out with COVID,” she continued.

Despite the rampant spread of the omicron variant throughout the state, other parts of Colorado — like Eagle County — are beginning to relax their mask regulations. Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman, who chairs the health board, said that doesn’t make sense during a COVID surge.

“The hard thing, I think, for us and this board is that Eagle has relaxed their mandates for sports teams and I couldn’t understand why,” Poschman said. “Once again, we have counties side-by-side that have different sets of orders and that’s troubling, always.”

In his letters, Writer pointed to an exemption that the town of Telluride obtained from San Miguel County to allow youth hockey players to play games without masks. Pitkin County should treat youth hockey players the way they treat adults in restaurants, he said.

“When anyone walks into the rec center they wear a mask. When you’re away from the ice, you wear a mask, just like in a restaurant when you’re away from your table,” he said. “There needs to be some sort of consistency in standard. They make [kids] wear masks while they’re playing, but they don’t make adults do it in restaurants.”

Poschman added that in a ­conversation with an official from Telluride, he was told that Telluride is not enforcing a mask policy for its hockey players, and the only time the league experienced a COVID outbreak was when they came to a tournament in Aspen in November. That event remains a factor in the concern and caution around hockey, Poschman said.

The city of Aspen will follow the county’s lead as far as making any exceptions for youth hockey. Aspen Mayor Torre said that members of the city council are somewhat split on the issue but leaning toward agreement with the county.

“We would agree with the [health board] chair’s position that right now, we’re not looking for any movement on this, in the height of another surge,” he said. “We don’t feel like we know enough about it to make a request for anything, but we want to support our community members that are interested in getting some information about this.”

The Aspen School District also has a mask policy in place for sports. Athletic Director John Castrese said that there are no plans to remove the policy at this time.

“Masks have to be on correctly all the time while on school premises — that includes on bleachers or any activities,” he said. “It’s a difficult situation because there’s so many things to navigate through. We’re hoping the situation will improve and we can get back to normalcy.”