Commercial lodging proprietors will likely be pleased to know that the Pitkin County Board of Health on Thursday voted to increase the previously discussed 35% reopening capacity for hotels to 50% in order to align with neighboring public health orders in Eagle and Gunnison counties.
It wasn’t a unanimous decision, however — health board chair and Snowmass Mayor Markey Butler expressed her vehement disagreement with the idea of capping hotel bookings at all.
“That 50% penalizes Snowmass,” she said, maintaining that many lodges in her jurisdiction don’t have large event spaces and accommodate physical distancing just by virtue of their architecture.
But the public health concerns surrounding the industry aren’t just about what happens within the buildings. They are also related to what happens after guests venture out to explore their destinations, said Suzuho Shimasaki, deputy director of public health for the county.
“It’s not just about the [hotel] corridors; it’s about what our communities can handle. We know that when we’re at capacity, people can’t social distance,” Shimasaki said, reiterating warnings that should a too-aggressive reopening result in a surge of COVID-19 cases, local economies would be facing another shutdown.
“That’s true for Aspen; that’s not true for Snowmass. We don’t have that problem here. Frankly, it’s inconsistent: We’re not putting the caps on our restaurants, but we are on lodging,” Butler countered, noting that the state health order does not restrict the lodging sector.
That comment was in reference to an earlier consensus by both county commissioners on Tuesday and the health board Thursday that would allow restaurants to reopen according to physical distancing guidelines rather than a percentage of their building capacity. In fact, the state published official instructions to that effect on Thursday — should Gov. Jared Polis indeed announce a sunset of the current public health order restricting eateries to takeout and delivery options, that is.
Those guidelines are reflective of the county’s seventh and final variance request to the state, as County Manager Jon Peacock explained during Tuesday’s Board of County Commissioners meeting.
“This would just give us more flexibility to allow those businesses to operate with capacity that are really determined by their ability to maintain physical distancing and sanitation practices versus an arbitrary percentage capacity,” he said.
Of course, the intention coming to fruition is dependent on the state — Pitkin County is just one of more than 40 counties awaiting response to variance applications that would allow more local autonomy to enact less restrictive mandates than those from the governor’s office.
Though Peacock has received a request from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for additional information regarding the recently submitted application, he could not offer much-desired insight about whether and when that variance request would be granted.
Polis has stated repeatedly that he would give an update with official guidelines for the next phase of public health orders on Monday, Memorial Day, as the calendar approaches the “safer-at-home” directive’s expiration date on Wednesday.
But, Peacock told county commissioners Tuesday, many are bracing for the possibility that Polis extends several aspects of the order during his anticipated announcement — hence the basis for the variance request, so that local restaurants and lodging can count on that Wednesday reopen date regardless of statewide updates.
Without that guarantee, however, both county officials and business leaders are left in a sort of policy purgatory.
“Right now, the state has, I think, 46 or 47 variance requests that they’re reviewing, so we do not know the exact time frame that we may hear back from them,” Peacock said, adding that he hopes to have an update by Polis’ Memorial Day address.
Aspen Mayor Torre expressed frustration on the lack of concrete directives on behalf of his constituents in the restaurant industry, in particular. In addition to ordering food product inventory to reopen, they have to stock up on sanitizing products, not to mention contact staff about reopening plans, he continued.
Peacock shared the frustration, but affirmed that without word from state authorities, there’s little more information he could offer.
As for the lodging question, Torre was clear. “My guidance has been clear to this point: that I can support the 50%,” he said regarding the capacity restrictions. “We have more work to do on this: We need to address the short-term rentals and know where we’re going with this.”
While opinions differ among elected officials when it comes to the pace for taking the path to reopening, medical and epidemiological perspectives have been consistent — cautiously and slowly.
“More frequent steps that are more conservative,” said Dr. Kim Levin, Pitkin County’s medical officer and an emergency physician at both Aspen Valley and Valley View hospitals. “That’s my strong opinion on all of this.”
To that end, Charlie Spickert, an epidemiologist contracted with Pitkin County to produce local modeling and strategy, offered a sobering historical example from Gunnison County’s handling of the Spanish Flu pandemic.
“Gunnison, the town across the mountains from us, really was concerned about the impact on their town, and they went full-on suppression,” he said. “They erected barricades at each end of town. They arrested violators. They banned get-togethers and street parties. They quarantined anyone who entered town for two days initially and increased it to five days.”
Two years later, Gunnison had yet to record a single case of the influenza responsible for about 8,000 deaths in Colorado, he continued.
“However, the flu seemed to be abating in 1920, so they lifted the quarantines. In only a few weeks, the virus found its way into the community, and within a few weeks, they documented 58 cases and four deaths in a town of 1,300 people,” he said.
Still, medical professionals remain hopeful for a responsible reopening, both Spickert and Levin maintained. So far, the data have been promising: Of the 305 people thus far tested for COVID-19 in Pitkin County, 21 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus — about a 6.5% rate — and 16 are pending.
“These numbers don’t include antibody tests or any of the antibody tests or PCR tests done by primary care physicians,” Spickert said, though he added that Pitkin County’s public health department is actively working on rolling out a dashboard detailing that information online next week.
In addition to state approval of the requested variance, a successful economic reopening, even incrementally, depends on individual responsibility, everyone involved with Thursday’s health board meeting repeated. That means wearing a mask when indoors or when physical distancing isn’t feasible, washing hands frequently, staying at home when sick and getting tested immediately if presenting with symptoms.
“It’s really very important that we look at these measures of getting that test result back in 24 hours, 48 hours at the most, identifying all [of a symptomatic person’s] contacts so we can intervene before they pass this on — that way, we can break the chain of infection,” Spickert said.
Turnaround times for test results, at least, is one arena in which county and health officials could bear good news: Aspen Valley Hospital “is beginning to receive rapid tests that can be performed on an analyzer which we already have in our laboratory,” confirmed AVH Chief Marketing Officer Jennifer Slaughter in a Thursday email.
“This is an exciting development because these COVID PCR tests can be processed rapidly — with results returned within a couple of hours,” she said, adding that the hospital anticipates being able to utilize the rapid polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, tests by mid- or late June.