Mountain towns, visitors face array of coronavirus restrictions for holidays
Some questioning parity of state’s Level Red, Level Orange designations
Colorado mountain towns along Interstate 70 face a range of public health restrictions during a traditionally busy holiday time for visitors during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Some counties are in the Level Orange, a high-risk category on the state’s COVID-19 dial, while some are in Level Red, a severe-risk category. Others are now operating in hybrids between the two.
Both state categories impose local restrictions on business and restaurant capacities, indoor events and private gatherings. Level Red is the stricter of the two. It does not allow private gatherings of more than one household or any indoor dining at restaurants, and further restricts capacities for things like offices and gyms.
Along the I-70 corridor, Clear Creek, Garfield and Summit counties are Level Red. Eagle and Pitkin counties are Level Orange.
While Pitkin County remains classified as Level Orange by the state health department, it voluntarily moved itself into what it is calling “level orange-plus-plus” to try to reduce what local health officials there have described as an “astronomical rise” in coronavirus cases.
Straddling two levels
The town of Basalt, while not a ski resort destination, embodies the landscape of varying restrictions people are facing in the mountains this winter. The town is split by Eagle and Pitkin counties, resulting in different restrictions in different areas. People there are taking it in stride, with good communication and coordination from both counties, said Town Manager Ryan Mahoney.
Glenn Drummond, a member of the Basalt Town Council, agreed. “It makes it difficult for some businesses, but it’s just one of those things you kind of deal with as best you can,” Drummond said. “I think business owners understand it is what it is.”
Pitkin County voluntarily imposed Level Red-like restrictions to curb a growing number of coronavirus infections even as it remains classified as Level Orange by the state. It made an exception for restaurants to allow them to continue to offer indoor dining at 25% capacity.
Meanwhile, up the interstate, Summit County, like some other counties, initially opted into the state’s Level Red category. It has since asked the state health department to move it back into Level Orange — something the state has not agreed to do.
Summit County was, however, approved by the state to start a 5-star business certification program late last week. For now, the program allows participating restaurants to offer indoor dining at 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is less — if they comply with more stringent regulations and are certified.
Dozens of restaurants in Summit County were certified over the weekend, with 71 businesses in the town of Breckenridge expected to be certified as of Tuesday by a team of 20 inspectors the town pulled together to get that work done.
Shannon Haynes, an assistant town manager for Breckenridge, said the Town Council had sent a letter to Gov. Jared Polis, asking him to consider how “one-size-fits-all” coronavirus restrictions are impacting mountain towns like Breckenridge, and disparities in how the state is classifying counties.
‘It starts to feel a little arbitrary’
Level Red restrictions have large impacts for guests, employees, businesses and local residents, triggering numerous downstream issues — particularly when lodging properties in the town and county are 90% booked for this weekend, Haynes said.
Colorado’s classifications have led to a situation where Level Orange and Level Red restrictions for some counties do not always seem to match up with how they are faring in the three indicators the state uses to report coronavirus infection risk on its COVID-19 dial.
Eagle County, for example, remains Level Orange with a two-week incidence rate of 740 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people, a test positivity rate of 9% and 12 days of declining or stable hospitalizations. So does Pitkin County, with a two-week incidence rate of 1,616 cases, a positivity rate of 6.5% and no hospitalizations reported in the past two weeks.
Summit County, meanwhile, remains in Level Red with an incidence rate of 752 cases, a positivity rate of 6.6% and 11 days of declining or stable hospitalizations. Clear Creek County also remains in Level Red, with an incidence rate of 421 cases, a positivity rate of 5.5% and no hospitalizations reported in the past two weeks, according to state data.
More than half of Colorado counties are now classified by the state as Level Red. And for mountain towns heavily reliant on winter tourism, there are significant dollars at stake for struggling businesses and residents.
The Colorado Association of Ski Towns recently sent a letter to Gov. Polis asking that resort community restaurants be allowed to operate at 25% indoor capacity through Christmas and New Year holidays if they have the support of their communities and local health departments. The association also asked for more transparency and more consistency in how counties with similar coronavirus indicators are being placed in Level Orange and Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial.
“It’s come to light that maybe all counties aren’t being treated with the same rules, and counties with similar COVID indicators are placed in different colors on the dial and it starts to feel a little arbitrary,” said Margaret Bowes, executive director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. “CAST requested that the governor’s office hold all counties to the same standards that the state has set.”
In an email reply to questions about how counties are being classified for coronavirus risk and restrictions, state officials said the three main indicators reported on the COVID-19 dial do not tell the whole story of how decisions are made to classify counties as Level Orange or Level Red.
“CDPHE works in close collaboration with counties before moving them on the dial. This consultation is critical because it ensures that local factors are taken into consideration. Unique circumstances may influence unique actions, and so the consultation process ensures that a robust discussion happens before actions are taken,” the email said.
Trying to avoid the red
Eagle County reported this week that coronavirus infections within the county are beginning to flatten, albeit at a high level, after the most recent surge in cases.
“All of us are in jeopardy of going red if we see big spikes, and I think all of us are nervous going into the New Year and Christmas weekends,” said Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll. “The good news is we made it through Thanksgiving Break with no evidence of a spike (in cases). That’s the first holiday we’ve had where we didn’t spike ourselves. We’re just going to stay positive, try to keep our heads down and get our counts down.”
Meanwhile, Summit County also continues to see declining infection rates, though it remains in Level Red. “Our numbers are getting better every day and that’s a really great thing,” said Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier. While Stiegelmeier thinks restrictions need to continue in order to help prevent the virus’s spread, she said there is widespread frustration with the state’s Level Red classification for the county, noting that there doesn’t seem to be parity.
“It seems a bit arbitrary. It’s clear we’re trying to follow the state’s public health order, and we believe at the local level and state level they are giving us good information, but when that’s not consistently applied it creates frustration and questions,” Stiegelmeier said.
Jon Stavney, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, said the state’s COVID-19 dial is “a great tool that looks uniform, but the truth is the inputs are different for each place.”
That matter is likely further compounded by things like hospital capacity, sometimes lagging infection data, and possibly even the public’s seeming willingness to comply with public health orders to prevent the virus’s spread, Stavney said.
Even as Colorado works to vaccinate people against the coronavirus as quickly as possible, now 10 months into the pandemic, controversies and questions around Level Red and Level Orange designations with state and local officials both trying to balance the economic needs of businesses and residents with measures to protect hospital capacity and public health aren’t going to be over any time soon, Stavney predicts.
“I think it’s going to be a really long winter of this, and into the spring is going to be hard,” Stavney said.
The good news, for now, is that Colorado’s latest disease modeling report, released Dec. 18, finds a surge in infections appears to be leveling off in most parts of the state. There are, however, still more Coloradans in the hospital than during the April peak and contact with other people remains “very risky,” with an estimated one in 59 Coloradans currently infectious, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health.
Colorado has seen more than 313,000 infections and 3,600 deaths from the virus this year, and infections and deaths continue to surge in many parts of the country. “This declining trajectory of the epidemic could be reversed by holiday lapses if Coloradans don’t remain vigilant in wearing masks, limiting contact with others outside of their households and maintaining distance in public spaces,” Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, said in a news release for the latest modeling report.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at email@example.com.
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