Anxious restaurateurs concerned that colder temperatures may decimate the revenue streams enjoyed by outdoor seating may have another option for the winter — although county officials, after much research into the matter, cautioned that yet more research should likely be done before investing in any would-be solution.
Tom Dunlop, Pitkin County’s Superfund site manager with a 50-year professional background in public health, co-authored a white paper reviewed by the health board that sought to explore a cost-benefit analysis of utilizing tent spaces to continue to expand restaurants’ dining capacities into the winter season.
“On the surface, it sounds like a good idea. It became clear to us that we needed to identify fatal flaws or boundaries that might provide some difficulties,” he told the county board of health Thursday.
In addition to costs — Dunlop said that the most logistically realistic tent options he and his team looked into commanded between $5,000 and $7,000 per month in rental fees, and that’s before heating and maintenance costs — some of the science behind the marketed technologies is questionable at best.
“There’s certainly things that an applicant would want to investigate just from the cost and safety and compliance standpoint. I know there’s a number of inquiries being made of the tent suppliers in the valley from people who are interested in doing this,” he said. “The intent of this review was to provide kind of a background for them to take the next steps.”
Both Snowmass Village and Aspen restaurant proprietors have expressed interest in pursuing tents as an option to continue outdoor seating while maintaining COVID-19 health precautions limiting indoor capacities.
“I know SkiCo is looking at tenting, as well, as an option for providing dining services,” Snowmass Mayor Markey Butler, who also chairs the Pitkin County health board, said Thursday.
And, Dunlap assured, the research indicates that certain outdoor tent options will provide viable avenues to extend food service, whether that be dine-in or takeout. But, he reiterated, it’s not a simple solution.
“There are a lot of complicating factors, and it’s just important that if someone is interested in this that they do the due diligence and not just throw something up expecting to increase their seating and revenue by creating a situation that might not be the safest,” he said, adding that indoor dining options with built-in ventilation systems will still provide the safest environments, from a public health standpoint.
“Some of these other factors — the codes and the tent safety — that we discovered were going to be perhaps more problematic,” he continued.
Pitkin County Environmental Health Manager Kurt Dahl echoed the concerns.
“When this issue came up with the state health department … their epidemiology team expressed a lot of concerns that a lot of these air handlers that they’re getting information about are unproven,” he said. “There’s a lot of things out there that aren’t [proven]. Before you really look into this, make sure you know what you’re looking at and that it’s truly a proven technology.”
Greg Poschman — who serves not only on the health board but also on the board of directors of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency, or CORE, as well as on the Pitkin County Board of County Commissioners — underscored Thursday that while the pandemic has dominated immediate concerns, climate change continues to manifest in now-everyday dynamics, as well.
He offered CORE’s work as a potential solution overlapping the two crises.
“At CORE, we’re super concerned that this community is going to move toward … making things safer COVID-wise, which is necessary, but will be increasing our carbon footprint dramatically,” he said. “When we do make retrofits and we do start … coming up with systems, that they are done in a responsible manner, looking at the bigger picture of climate change, which is easy to ignore during the pandemic but still important.”
To that, Dunlap emphasized that CORE has been an integral part of conversations but again highlighted that the research is limited, especially when balancing the goals between environmental and reducing viral loads.
“There’s a lot of things out there that aren’t [proven]. Before you really look into this, make sure you know what you’re looking at and that it’s truly a proven technology,” Dunlap said.
It’s just one of myriad industries that will need to adjust for an unprecedented winter season. For instance, the lodging community’s “excess capacity” — that is, uninhabited rooms — will potentially serve a special role in aiding the county’s box-it-in viral mitigation strategy.
It is perfectly possible, for instance, that there may be a small COVID-19 outbreak among connected tourists — in which case, those impacted would potentially have to elongate their stay with an unexpected quarantine or isolation period, Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said.
“But those are all conversations that we need to have with the lodging community in preparation for the winter,” he said Thursday.