Concerned by what dining will look like this winter and the dissemination of information, Aspen restaurateurs met with members of the Pitkin County Public Health Department on Tuesday afternoon to look ahead to the upcoming season.
The in-person, socially distanced gathering at Jimmy’s Restaurant and Bar was in response to a letter that owners Jimmy Yeager and Jessica Lischka sent last week to more than 130 community members and elected officials seeking to initiate a conversation on what winter will mean for businesses in Aspen.
The meeting’s objectives were to obtain clarity on the current regulations, establish an effective channel of communication as changes occur and to encourage or demand the public health department lobby on the local restaurant industry’s behalf to increase the allotted capacities this winter, Yeager said before the meeting. At the least, he said, the hope was for everyone involved to be clear on expectations so that restaurateurs may plan accordingly.
Restaurant owners during the meeting expressed frustration with how public health and the municipalities communicate information to business owners and the community — especially when policies change or relax. A number of restaurateurs, for instance, were uninformed when the number of patrons who may sit at a table quietly increased from 8 to 10.
Matsuhisa owner Michael Goldberg pointed out that every day his staff underserves tables — unaware of these changes — represents a loss of business.
“I don’t think we have a COVID problem,” Yeager said. “I think we have a bureaucratic nightmare problem.”
Members of Pitkin County Public Health were sympathetic to many of the restaurateurs’ concerns and said they also struggle to receive adequate information from the state, which in turn impacts their ability to relay updates locally.
“We understand and hear how confusing it is,” Pitkin County Public Health Director Karen Koenemann said, adding shortly after: “There’s a gap in communication and we struggle with that.”
As an example, Koenemann said she learned about a recent change to a state public health measure not from state policymakers themselves, but after reading a newspaper article on it.
“How do you tolerate that?” Yeager posed. “That’s got to be completely infuriating.”
Aspen Mayor Torre, in defense of the local public health team, said the missing communication locally is not for a lack of effort on the county’s part. He said he also believes the lack of communication at the state level “has been somewhat purposeful.”
Pitkin County more recently aligned with the state’s measures for restaurant operations and intends to remain as such moving forward, Koenemann said. While this means local restaurants can look to the state for general guidelines, the county public health team is still advocating for the community’s specific needs at the state level, she said. Potentially screening visitors at the Aspen airport — a subject that garnered a fair level of interest Tuesday — is one example.
Following up on a comment from Cache Cache partner Jodi Larner about not welcoming sick or symptomatic visitors, Yeager noted that as much as Aspen does not want to restrict visitation, “we don’t want the wrong kind of tourism, either.”
Due to the many federal components at play, Koenemann said a measure that mandates visitor screening would be most effective at the state level. She said Pitkin County Public Health has discussed this for about a month and recommended the state consider such an action.
In an effort to move toward expanding Aspen’s capacity this winter while not increasing virus transmission, Torre articulated his support of some type of screening, testing or travel restriction.
“I know you don’t have the answers, I know I don’t have the answers,” Torre said before the room, “but how do we get just a little more capacity through greater safety measures?”