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Summit County loosens ski area capacity, puts in stricter last call rules in level orange order

An employee scans a lift pass on opening day at Breckenridge Ski Resort on Friday, Nov. 13. Under level orange, the county is allowing ski areas to operate under looser capacity restrictions.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

The new year means fewer restrictions as Summit County moves to level orange on the state’s COVID-19 dial on Monday, Jan. 4.

Since Nov. 22, the county has been in level red on the state’s dial, which closed indoor dining, placed further capacity restrictions on ski resorts and prohibited gatherings of more than one household. The move to level orange will allow indoor dining and gatherings as well as reduce capacity limits on ski resorts, county officials said at a Board of Health meeting on Thursday, Dec. 31.

“Our community has done such a great job getting our numbers down,” said Public Health Director Amy Wineland at the meeting. “Across the state and, of course, locally we’ve decreased our case numbers by nearly 50% since early December.”

Summit won’t be the only county in the state to move out of level red. In a tweet on Wednesday, Dec. 30, Gov. Jared Polis announced he has directed the state’s health department to move all level red counties into level orange on Monday.

With the move to level orange, the following restrictions will be effective starting at 12:01 a.m. Monday.

  • Face coverings are required in buildings open to the public and outside when maintaining a 6-foot distance isn’t possible
  • High risk populations are strongly advised to stay home
  • Personal gatherings may occur with up to 10 people from no more than two households
  • Its recommended that schools be in person. The Summit School District will have students returning to hybrid learning on Jan. 11
  • Restaurants are allowed to open in person dining at 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer, with parties limited to groups of 10 from no more than two households
  • Bars remain closed
  • Offices can open at 25% capacity with remote work strongly encouraged
  • Gyms and fitness centers can open at 25% capacity with up to 25 people, whichever is fewer
  • Retail can open at 50% capacity with increased curbside pick up and delivery as well as dedicated hours for seniors and high risk groups
  • Personal services, such as salons and massage parlors, can be open at 25% capacity with up to 25 people, whichever is fewer
  • Indoor events, which differ from personal gatherings and are approved by the county, can occur at 25% capacity with up to 25 people
  • Outdoor events can occur at 25% capacity with up to 75 people
  • Outdoor guided services are allowed at 25% capacity with up to 10 people

One of the major changes in level orange will be loosened capacity restrictions for ski resorts. When the county moved into level red, officials worked with ski area leaders to determine further capacity limits, which weren’t ever shared publicly.

“We had made the statement that when we moved to orange that we would move those restrictions,” County Manager Scott Vargo said. “We as staff have talked and (Wineland) is recommending that we remove those restrictions.”

Starting on Monday, the ski areas will be using the capacity restrictions previously approved in their COVID-19 operating plans.

The new level will also give short-term lodging companies relief, as they are now able to book reservations of up to two households with a limit of 10 people.

The move comes after the county instituted its 5 Star Certification program, allowing certain restaurants and fitness centers to open with level orange restrictions. On Monday, those businesses will be joined by all the businesses that have not been certified in following level orange restrictions.

The certified businesses won’t be able to operate under level yellow restrictions, which allows restaurants to open at 50% capacity with up to 50 people, until the county shows two weeks of hosptialization, incidence rate and positivity rate data in level orange. As of Saturday, Jan. 2, the only data point to remain in level red is the county’s incidence rate at 677.8 new cases per 100,000 people.

The county would need an incidence rate of 350 new cases per 100,000 people to be in the level orange threshold.

In its public health order, the county changed the last call at restaurants from 9 to 9:30 p.m., which is earlier than the 10 p.m. last call in the state’s level orange guidelines. Last call for take-out alcohol sales will be at 10:30 p.m., according to the order.

“When we were in orange moving towards level red, we made changes specifically in this area because of some of the concerns around gatherings that were taking place at restaurants with staff and others after hours or later in the evening,” Vargo said. “We know that’s one of the challenges that exists.”

The county hopes that keeping an earlier last call will prevent restaurants from turning into a bar atmosphere.

“We need to continue to be vigilant and really target the areas where we know we have issues … and that includes gatherings and gatherings that include alcohol consumption,” Wineland said.

Lauren Gearhart flags vehicles through the line at the bus depot in Frisco on Sunday, Dec. 27, where healthcare workers, first responders, and medical professionals receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

Vaccinations

At the meeting, Wineland also gave an update on the county’s vaccination effort.

The county is currently in Phases 1a and 1b on the state’s vaccination plans, including health care workers, first responders and people over 70 years old.

The county hasn’t started vaccinating the rest of Phase 1b, which includes essential workers, such as teachers and grocery store workers, essential officials from legislative and judicial branches of state governments and frontline journalists.

Wineland said the county is awaiting further guidance from the state on how to prioritize people that fall within that group.

The timeline for moving into that phase also depends on how many vaccines the county gets, which varies from week to week. As of Saturday, the county had no available vaccination appointments as it awaits more shipments of the vaccine.

“It’s exciting to see that we have frontline workers in that next group, our educators our teachers,” Wineland said. “We want kids to be back in school because know that’s a huge priority for our community.”

Summit County visitors struggle to secure refunds for canceled lodging reservations due to level red restrictions

A group of condos, some of which are offered as short-term rentals, are pictured in Dillon on Dec. 16. Short-term lodging owners have been dealing with high demand for reservation cancellations because of level red restrictions.
Photo by Libby Stanford / estanford@summitdaily.com

As cancellations due to lodging restrictions increase, some visitors are struggling to secure refunds for trips booked before restrictions were in place.

Tim Osborn, who lives in Louisiana, planned to visit Breckenridge over the holidays with his wife, children and their significant others. In total, the group comprised three households.

When he booked the reservation over the summer, novel coronavirus restrictions allowed multiple households to stay in one short-term lodging unit. However, the county has since moved into level red restrictions, which permit only one household per reservation.

“When we saw this announcement, we immediately contacted Breckenridge Tourism (Office) to confirm as well as the town manager’s office,” he said.

After hearing from the tourism office and the town that the restrictions would mean his reservation would violate the public health order, Osborn canceled with VRBO, the short-term rental service he used to book the house. However, the property owner initially refused to give Osborn a refund, and he was never notified from VRBO or the property owner that restrictions prohibited their reservation, he said.

“It really took our own research to discover that our rental housing that we had arranged was not going to be able to be used,” Osborn said.

Osborn added that he was eventually able to secure a refund by going to the tourism office and town and asking for assistance.

Breckenridge Lodging Association President Toby Babich said he estimates reservations to be down 20% to 40% since the restrictions went into place in November.

“A lot of these people booked knowing that COVID was an issue across the country, but they booked without these specific restrictions,” he said. “It’s not just that we can’t take bookings for more than one household moving forward, but the expectation from the county in the past … is that we would cancel or modify any bookings that we already have in place.”

That expectation has caused lodging companies to alter customers’ travel plans at a rapid rate, Babich said, placing a hefty load on the work required in a year when sales are already down.

Babich said people like Osborn might be having a difficult time securing a refund because of the added work placed on those in the industry.

“People are not exhibiting the patience requisite for our lodging community to respond,” he said. “They really need to understand the lodging community across the county is dealing with these things on a quick turnaround time, and usually they deal with a lot of them at the same time. We’re all trying to do the best we can to manage this situation.”

Babich added that making a reservation costs property owners and managers money.

“When people are asking us to cancel for free, very often they don’t understand that we’ve spent hundreds and hundreds just surfacing their reservation before they stay,” he said.

A sign informs visitors that a property in Dillon is managed by Summit Resort Group, a local property management company.
Photo by Libby Stanford / estanford@summitdaily.com

Whether a person receives a refund for their reservation also depends on the contract they signed. Although the state and county governments implemented the one household rule, they are not able to require lodging owners or managers to issue a refund for cancellations.

“The county has no role in the resolution of any disputes between the two parties related to either one’s adherence to the terms of the (short-term rental) contract,” county spokesperson Julie Sutor wrote in an email. “Those disputes must be taken up directly between the two parties and/or their respective legal representatives.”

Aside from the work to secure a reservation, Osborn said his bigger worry about his experience is the lack of communication throughout the process. While he said Summit and Breckenridge “should be applauded” for their COVID-19 response, he’d like to see local governments ensure the message about the restrictions is communicated by enforcing repercussions like revoking a lodging license.

“They need to push very actively on these rental companies and homeowners making short-term rentals to reach out to each and every one of the people they’re renting these homes to to inform them that we have these restrictions in place,” he said.

The county has been issuing communication to short-term rental owners and managers. However, those properties are managed under a permitting system rather than licensing system, so the county isn’t able to easily revoke a license from a business that is not complying with the rules.

Sutor added that anyone looking to visit Summit County should read up on the county’s current coronavirus restrictions at SummitCountyCo.gov.

Vail Resorts asks Summit County to remove ski area capacity restrictions

Skiers and riders are seen waiting in line on opening day Nov. 6 at Keystone Resort. Keystone and Breckenridge Ski Resort officials recently asked the county to eliminate their capacity limits. County officials declined but said they would revisit the issue.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

On Tuesday morning, Vail Resorts properties in Summit County, including Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort, posted on social media that they had submitted a request to the Summit County Public Health Department to remove capacity restrictions at ski areas.

The social media posts indicated that the reduced capacities mandated by Summit County government restrict the resorts more than their state-approved winter operating plans.

At a Summit County Board of Health meeting later in the day, government officials discussed the request. Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said the county put the most recent capacity restrictions in place on ski areas and other businesses due to a worry about the impact on the community from a high number of out-of-state and Front Range visitors.

The county has declined to publicly release ski area capacity limits at the direction of the ski areas’ lawyers, who cite protected trade secrets as the reason.

Tuesday’s ski resort capacity discussion came as Wineland described the county’s current COVID-19 situation as “fragile” despite a recent decrease or stabilization in all three of the state’s metrics: new cases per 100,000 people, positivity rate and hospitalizations.

Wineland said that after some recent outbreaks within ski area employee housing, she believed it would be best to wait on relaxing restrictions on ski areas until the county’s downward trend in COVID-19 case numbers gets closer to 350 per 100,000 people. The county currently sits at 752 new cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, according to the state’s dial dashboard.

Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said the county needs to keep reminding itself that it is “still in a precarious place” even though numbers have dropped.

Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said she thinks ski areas are trying to do a good job with COVID-19 rules but enacting the practices is very difficult.

“I have seen some alarming pictures of lack of distancing,” Stiegelmeier said. “If we were to increase any capacity, it would be worse. We know there will be so much pressure in the next week. And if we’ve already had problems in recent days, if we increase capacity, we’re asking for problems and higher transmission rates.”

Summit County Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott said Vail Resorts officials asked the county to relax the capacity restrictions and said they would maintain some capacity limits “on their own discretion.” Hendershott added that the county has received eight to 10 complaints per week regarding COVID-19 regulations at ski resorts, which he said “is a reasonable amount considering the thousands of people on the mountain.”

“And a lot of folks have misunderstandings with regards to what the requirements are,” Hendershott said. “For example, unrelated parties boarding a chairlift or gondola together, that’s allowed under the guidance with one seat in between. And two unrelated parties can board a gondola cabin at 50% capacity.”

Hendershott said the county also has received complaints about overall volume at the ski areas, including concerns about crowding on ski resort buses and complaints that frequently bring up the concept of “superspreaders” spreading the virus in places such as ski resort lift lines.

“But we are quick to say these are not superspreader events,” Hendershott said. “There are precautions in place, compared to indoors not wearing masks.”

Hendershott added that he thinks Vail Resorts has done a better job recently with controlling crowds. One recent morning, he observed employees using a megaphone to remind skiers and riders of the rules in the base area and to space out in lift mazes. That said, Hendershott acknowledged that later in the day, he saw the lift-line distancing becoming worse.

The county commissioners ultimately declined to make any changes ahead of Christmas but agreed to keep the capacity discussion alive, adding that they would touch base with all county ski areas about how operations went during the holiday week.

First doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered successfully in Eagle County

 

Vail Health Employee Health Nurse Diane Schmidt, left, prepares to give a coronavirus vaccination to Lead Respiratory Therapist Julie Scales.
Vail Health photo.

Dec. 23, 2020 – In the first week of the vaccine’s arrival, more than 900 people in Eagle County received a first dose, with that number expected to triple in the next two to three weeks. The county received 1,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine yesterday (12/22), adding to the 875 doses of the Pfizer vaccine received on Dec. 15.

The first groups in Eagle County to receive the vaccine included:

-Healthcare workers who interact for extended periods of time or greater frequency with COVID-19 patients, including staff that provide care, conduct testing and/or are providing vaccinations.

-Staff and residents of long term care facilities.

-Home health care providers and hospice.

-First responders, including paramedics, law enforcement, firefighters and search and rescue personnel.

-Other medical staff – behavioral health specialists, dental staff and pharmacists.

Eagle County and its partners in the medical community are fielding hundreds of questions on when the vaccine will be available for additional people. “It is difficult to forecast the timing for moving past the first round of vaccines, since our progress is based on what are currently very limited supplies,” said Heath Harmon, Eagle County Director of Public Health and Environment.

Public Health officials are hopeful that they may be able to move into the next priority groups in early January, although this will be based on vaccine supply. Those next priority groups will likely include people who are at greater risk for severe disease and death, followed by workers who provide services that are essential for the community to function. The equitable distribution of the vaccine is also very important. Many workers and community members who are on the frontlines and cannot work remotely have had a disproportionate risk of exposure to the virus and will also be important to reach earlier. Priority groups are being further identified by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, based on federal guidance from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. Additional guidance can be found on the state’s COVID-19 vaccine site.

“While we know our community is anxiously awaiting availability of the vaccine for everyone, we must remember that every vaccine given makes our county a little bit safer,” Harmon said. “We want our community members to have a good understanding of what the order will be, acknowledging that we will need to make some adjustments if revisions are made at the federal or state levels.”

Updates on vaccine availability and the timing for priority groups within Eagle County will be shared widely through many communications channels, including www.EagleCountyCovid.org and the county’s social media platforms, as well as through partner organizations, local medical providers and local media outlets.

Summit County amends public health order to include 5 star program for restaurants

Diners peruse the menu at Modis while seated in the restaurant's outdoor dining area. The restaurant has added heaters and a tent to keep customers warm while indoor dining is not allowed. The new five star program will allow indoor dining for restaurants that qualify.
Photo by Libby Stanford / estanford@summitdaily.com

Summit County restaurants are now able to apply for the 5 Star Business Certification Program, allowing them to open with less restrictive capacity measures than are currently allowed in level red.

Although the program was included in Summit County’s amended public health order, which will go into effect Saturday, Dec. 19, the county is still in the process of applying for a variance to implement the program locally.

However, the county does anticipate that the state will grant the variance because case numbers meet the criteria. The county anticipates receiving a response to the application as soon as Monday, Dec. 21, public health spokesperson Nicole Valentine said.

“This was rolled out really, really quickly,” Assistant County Manager Sarah Vaine said at a Board of Health meeting Thursday, Dec. 17. “It’s been sort of a mad dash.”

According to the state’s framework for the program, counties in level red are eligible if they have a sustained decrease in cases for at least two weeks. Summit County’s two-week cumulative incidence rate has dropped from 1,314 new cases per 100,000 people on Dec. 3 to 858.5 new cases per 100,000 people on Thursday, Dec. 17, according to the state’s dial dashboard.

For the restaurants that qualify, the program could provide much-needed relief in advance of the holidays, allowing them to reopen to in-person dining at 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer.

The county already has posted an application for restaurants to be part of the program at SummitCountyCo.gov. Vaine added that the county has started training inspectors who will go into restaurants and check for compliance.

According to the county’s application for the program, restaurants must demonstrate an ability to do the following to qualify:

  • Have completed the county’s physical distancing protocol form with business-specific mitigation efforts that are approved by the county
  • Enforce mask-wearing for customers and employees
  • Allow at least 10 feet between tables and customers, and ensure that only one household is in each party. (Once the county is out of level red, the tables can be 6 feet apart.)
  • Regularly sanitize and disinfect high-touch surfaces
  • Check employees for symptoms and COVID-19 exposure
  • Screen customers for symptoms and gather contact information to help with contact tracing
  • Document how people from different households will remain at least 6 feet apart (for restaurants not using reservations)
  • Have business-specific plans for outbreak detection, reporting and response
  • Have improved ventilation through HVAC improvements, HEPA filters or opening windows and doors to maximize airflow
  • Promote the Exposure Notification app for employees and customers
  • Publicly display the county’s public health order complaint number: 970-668-8600
  • Have extra hours and accommodations for high-risk populations
  • Have no prior citations of noncompliance with public health orders

For now, Summit County only is allowing restaurants to apply for the program, even though the state released guidance for the program for all kinds of businesses.

Vaine said the county wants to avoid opening everything up, cases rising and then being put into level purple, which would be a total shutdown.

“We’ve been getting flooded, understandably, with pleas from all different types of businesses to consider rolling this out to other businesses in the community, which we absolutely plan to do,” she said. “Our concern is if we open up everything too quickly, that we could get pitched into purple, which would then be devastating.”

Eventually, the county plans to open the program up to fitness centers, retail stores, personal services and other businesses. However, because short-term lodging restrictions are part of the state’s gathering restrictions in level red, they will not be included in the program.

“The one-household rule is in place because we remain in level red,” County Manager Scott Vargo said. “Until we move to level orange, we really won’t have the opportunity to modify that one-household rule.”

With a vaccine just days away, Summit County officials present a distribution plan

Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland screens a patient for symptoms of the novel coronavirus before they enter the flu shot drive Oct. 10 at the bus barn by the County Commons in Frisco. The county plans to use a similar drive-thru method when it has sufficient supply of the novel coronavirus vaccine.
Photo by Libby Stanford / estanford@summitdaily.com

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct information about the number of vaccines the county will be able to administer at the point of distribution site.

With two novel coronavirus vaccines just days away from approval, Summit County officials already have begun preparing for vaccine distribution.

Both Pfizer and Moderna have submitted requests for an emergency-use authorization on their COVID-19 vaccines. Four other companies are in the trial process for vaccines, as well. The Food and Drug Administration will be meeting with Pfizer and Moderna on Thursday, Dec. 10, and Dec. 17 to approve the vaccines.

At a Summit County Board of Health meeting Tuesday, Dec. 8, Summit County Nurse Manager Sara Lopez said the county is anticipating receiving the first batch of vaccines a week after they are approved.

The county will be following the state’s plan for vaccine distribution, which includes vaccinating health care workers in the initial phase, Lopez said.

Lopez said the state estimates it will receive 46,800 doses of the vaccine, which will be administered in two doses. She would not say how many of those doses Summit County will receive; however, she did say it will be a small number.

“We have an estimation from state health as to what we will get — and this is so unknown pending all of these pieces falling into place — we’re hoping within a number of weeks being able to vaccinate at least those (inpatient) health care workers that have the most contact and most risk of getting COVID,” she said.

In the second phase of vaccine distribution, the county plans to give vaccines to pharmacies and providers that are involved in Vaccines for Children programs, which includes the Summit Community Care Clinic and Centura Health Physicians Group. In that phase, higher-risk individuals still will be prioritized for vaccinations.

Lopez said the vaccines for children programs create high standards for vaccine storage, administration and documentation.

Then, once the vaccines are able to be widely produced, they will be available for anyone who wants one, as with any other vaccine.

The draft version of the state's vaccine distribution plan shows that health care workers, critical workers and high-risk individuals will be the first groups to be vaccinated.
Screenshot from Summit County Public Health presentation

When it comes to actually distributing the vaccine, the county plans to host vaccination drives, which it practiced in October with the flu vaccine.

The county’s bus barn, located off Peak One drive in Frisco, will serve as the point of distribution site, Lopez said. Once the county has a sufficient number of vaccines, it will be able to vaccinate about 2,500 people every two weeks at that site.

“We’re being fairly conservative with our estimation,” Lopez said. “If we were to get considerably more vaccines, we could really broaden that number.”

At the meeting, the board also discussed the county’s communication plan for the vaccine. Commissioner Thomas Davidson said it’s important for people to realize the vaccine is not a cure for the virus.

“It doesn’t make you well once you’ve caught it,” he said. “I’m thinking some people don’t understand vaccinations even well enough to understand that this will not cure you if you catch COVID.”

Public health spokesperson Nicole Valentine said the department is working to create ad and video campaigns to educate and encourage people to get the vaccine.

The county is also working to add a vaccination page to the COVID-19 section of its website, which can be reached at SummitCountyCo.gov/coronavirus.

County Manager Scott Vargo said all of the preparations are an effort to make sure the county can meet all of the demands once vaccines are available.

“We don’t have a vaccine in hand, but we are well prepared for when we do,” he said.