large home

A stock image of a large home. Urban dwellers are fleeing their crowded centers during the pandemic and using what have traditionally been second homes as their primary residences. Teleconferencing, including the boom in Zoom, has emboldened people from more urban areas to relocate.

Pitkin County officials are bracing for impact as the COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a real estate boom and, by extension, an uptick in school enrollments. 

During his update to commissioners at a Tuesday afternoon work session, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock underscored the myriad uncertainties and implications of an increased year-round population as affluent city dwellers empowered by normalized telecommuting flock to the Roaring Fork Valley.

“In terms of looking at how this is going to affect our community going into the future, there’s a lot of different indicators out there,” Peacock said. “It’s a change, potentially, in our community — not just our population but our demands for services and our demands for infrastructure. I think over the next few months, we’re going to be having a lot of conversations. School enrollments, we know, are up. Transportation is going to continue to be an immediate challenge. The nature of our economy is going to be interesting to track, whether it’s going to be as seasonal or not going forward for a year or two.”

And unlike the data from local COVID-19 cases — which Peacock described as “just now” becoming “meaningful” because of the small sample size — the phenomenon dubbed “the great urban exodus” has already had real impact on local numbers.

According to an article that appeared in The Colorado Sun Monday, 111 Aspen homes went under contract in the first two weeks of July — compared to just 46 in the same timeframe last year. 

Many of those new residents have children, and Aspen schools are seeing sharp increases in their enrollment inquiries for the coming school year: Aspen Country Day School’s doubled, for instance, and Aspen School District Superintendent David Baugh told The Colorado Sun that though the district typically sees about 35 new students in any given year between its preschool, elementary, middle and high schools, that number jumped to 150 this year.

“How long does this last? Is it just a COVID phenomenon, or is it something else? Lots of uncertainties there with that,” Peacock said Tuesday. 

Commissioner Greg Poschman, who is also a voting member of the county health board, suggested it would behoove his fellow public servants to prepare for the longer term.

“One of the comments that I love to repeat is, ‘disruption brings opportunity as well as the chaos,’” he said. “The opportunity of teleconferencing is making it possible for people to work from home more and more. Rather or not a vaccine arrives, people may decide to stay.”

COVID-19 numbers decline

The health care infrastructure is one system that so far has not seen a strain, even as tourists and new residents have nestled into town in recent weeks, Peacock noted. As of Sunday, there were 15 new cases reported via Aspen Valley Hospital’s community testing out of 242 administered.

While still higher than public health officials would like to see, it’s a marked improvement from the previous two weeks, he continued.

“Our number of infections has gone down to 15 — which is still high for that week period,” he said. “Our positivity rate has also dropped to below 7%. You might recall it was … approaching that 10% threshold.”

Those numbers reflect total tests administered through AVH — regardless of where a patient resides. The official county tallies, conversely, only account for residents of the respective county. That discrepancy has caused some confusion among the public, especially when Pitkin County’s daily new cases report was -12 recently. 

“We had cases assigned to us that were either residents of another county or another state. This data is getting cleaned up now, and going forward, we shouldn’t see as big a decrease. We were up over 160 at one point; our current count today is at [158],” he said. “You can see our neighbors are still having fairly significant new-day case count averages, but they are working through mitigation plans right now. I know Eagle County just passed theirs.”

But with the influx of people deciding to make their Aspen second homes instead primary ones, it’s raised some questions as to who counts as a Pitkin County resident for the purposes of tracking COVID-19 cases.

“It is my understanding that if they are here for a period of more than 30 days, they’re being counted in our town,” Peacock said. “Other counties have a different understanding. We are trying to get clarification on how [the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment] is counting that.”

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