A new health order in Pitkin County will ban indoor dining and tighten restrictions on hotels and rental units beginning Sunday. The new rules, voted into effect by the Board of Health on Monday, come as the county’s soaring coronavirus rates rank second-worst in Colorado.
Along with the restrictions which put the county in line with the “red” level of the state’s COVID-19 dial, the county will apply for the state’s “5 star program” – a path for businesses to resume some operations if they can prove they are following safety precautions that go beyond what is required by public health orders.
The county will move out of red level restrictions if its two-week rate of new cases is below 700 and has been decreasing for 14 days.
Board members said the new rules could impact about 1,200 workers in the service industry, but are a necessary step to help slow out-of-control virus spread.
“The scale is tipping from economic concerns to really serious anxiety about health,” said board member Ann Mullins. “I think everyone’s feeling that this is closing in on us.”
Restaurant owners and employees made impassioned pleas to keep restaurants open at the virtual meeting, arguing that new restrictions were a blunt tool that would hit them hard financially amid inadequate economic assistance.
“Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Sam Hayes, an employee at an Aspen restaurant. “Why are we punishing restaurants and businesses that have been doing the right thing this whole time?”
Some callers argued that stricter public health rules and enforcement were necessary to curb transmission. Greg Balko, an emergency room physician at Aspen Valley Hospital, said he is seeing increasing hospitalizations and “sicker and sicker” patients.
“I think we’ve got to do something,” Balko said. “That’s up for [the Board of Health] to decide what to do, but we can’t keep doing what we’re doing because the numbers are going up.”
New cases of the virus in Pitkin County are developing at speeds unmatched by almost anywhere else in the state, including nearby counties and other counties with ski resorts. Josh Vance, an epidemiologist for the county, said the reason why is unclear.
“We’ve done a ton of research to analyze the data and try to understand exactly why we’ve continued to increase while our neighbors and other counties across the state have decreased,” Vance said. “We haven’t fallen on any one indicator.”
The new restrictions will ban indoor dining at on-mountain restaurants, but will not shut down ski lifts. The board said Aspen Skiing Company will “improve mask & distancing enforcement” as part of the latest health measures.