Aspen Skiing Co. tweaks protocols, responsive to outbreaks among workers, county says
With new Pitkin County rules, outdoor seating at mountain restaurants will be at premium come Sunday
Aspen Skiing Co. is taking three major steps to boost its efforts to try to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and comply with stricter regulations adopted Monday by Pitkin County.
Skico is seeking ways to keep its on-mountain restaurants operational after the county decided to prohibit indoor dining, at least temporarily, starting Sunday. Visitors will only be allowed to enter restaurants to order and pick up food, use the restrooms and briefly warm up, said Skico vice president of communications Jeff Hanle. There will be no indoor seating and masks are mandatory at all times indoors.
Skico will utilize its restaurants’ patios and outdoor, open-sided tents to the greatest extent possible, depending on weather conditions, Hanle said. Tables are limited to single household use only and groups cannot be larger than eight people.
Skico also is arranging the necessary staffing to comply with the county’s direction to increase enforcement of mask requirements and social distancing in lift lines, ski base areas and other points of congregation.
The company also is contemplating how to honor the county’s directive to more closely regulate riding of chairlifts among unrelated parties.
The company updated the COVID-19 operation procedures section of its website Tuesday and seeks other ways to convey to visitors what will be expected of them when they visit the ski areas and the upper Roaring Fork Valley, according to Hanle.
In many ways, Skico has been under particularly heavy scrutiny this winter as Pitkin County’s largest private sector employer and because of the visible nature of its business.
Rarely has a week gone by this winter without claims circulating in the upper valley about outbreaks among lift operators, ski patrollers and Skico restaurants workers. Most of the claims are grossly exaggerated.
For example, The Aspen Times received a letter last week from the mother of a young man working as a ski lift operator at Snowmass contending 40 workers in the department were ill. The letter claimed Skico was not taking enough steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 from an infected liftie to his roommates, who live in Skico housing.
Hanle said there were 18 members of the Snowmass lift department out of work as of Friday — six who tested positive for COVID-19 and 12 who are isolated due to contact tracing. Skico provides oversight of employees in company housing, and who test positive for COVID, via daily contacts from contracted medical professionals. All employees living in company housing signed commitments as part of their leases that say they will abide to COVID-related guidelines.
“However, we do not monitor their daily activity inside their apartments,” the company statement said.
If an employee reaches out and indicates a roommate is not following quarantine or isolation protocols, Skico will “engage” with the offending employee and work with the reporting employee to find alternative housing, according to Skico’s statement.
One infection involved a lift attendant who lives with three roommates in Skico’s Club Commons complex in Snowmass Village. Each of the employees has their own bedroom in the four-bedroom unit.
“The employee was instructed to self-isolate in his room and not enter the apartment common areas while other employees were present,” Skico said.
The company said the current percentage of employees out of work due to infection or close contact with someone with COVID in its housing complexes is lower than the percentage of employees out of work due to COVID overall.
“Additionally, the infection rate among all ASC employees is less than half of the rate for the county as a whole,” Skico said in its statement.
Joshua Vance, an epidemiologist with Pitkin County, said there is no current investigation of an outbreak among lift attendants at Snowmass. Every COVID-19 case is investigated by the county to determine any possible transmission among employees of a workplace.
“If transmission among employees is not found to occur at the worksite, then we do not classify that as an outbreak at that worksite,” Vance said.
Last month, 17 employees of Skico’s Sundeck Restaurant on Aspen Mountain and Aspen Mountain Club tested positive for COVID-19. Vance said Skico worked “very closely” with the county on the outbreak and “they were very responsive and agreeable to our support.”
Skico said in its statement that it followed containment procedures that it instituted last summer before opening its mountain facilities. After two employees at the Sundeck sought tests on their own and received positive results, Pitkin County Public Health initiated widespread testing at the Sundeck and Aspen Mountain Club. That confirmed the additional cases, and the Sundeck remained open.
“The contact tracing that was conducted by the county determined that transmission did not appear to be happening in the workplace,” Skico said in its statement. “We specifically discussed our operations with the county as part of their tracing, and they did not recommend or require us to change any of our approved operating methods.”
Skico also is experiencing illnesses at its Little Nell Hotel. An employee, who requested anonymity to be able to speak freely about the situation, contended 30% of the staff is currently ill. Hanle said 5% of employees at the hotel are ill.
“We take the health and welfare of our employees very seriously and have taken extensive measures to protect them,” Skico said in a statement in response to a request from The Aspen Times to discuss various alleged outbreaks among company employees. “We submitted full operation plans for all of our facilities to the county and the state, including a workforce housing plan, and all were approved.”
Skico employees are required to complete a health check-in each day before they come to work. A health team hired on contract works with the company “proactively and reactively should there be infections,” the company’s statement said.
“We have strict protocols in place and work closely with our employees if they have been exposed or test positive,” the company said.
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