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Mountain rebound: Colorado ski towns reopen in an infected world

After 2½ months of lockdown and at the traditional kickoff to summer, Breckenridge and Vail are slowly reopening for some semblance of business.
Credit: Chancey Bush/The Gazette

VAIL, Colo. — The mayors of Colorado’s top two ski towns in terms of annual skier visits — Eric Mamula of Breckenridge and Dave Chapin of Vail — have a lot in common. They’re both restaurateurs deeply concerned about their essential workers. They’re both working hard on economic recovery. And they both know COVID-19 all too well.

Chapin because he actually contracted and recovered from the disease caused by the novel coronavirus and Mamula because he recently had to temporarily shut down his Main Street restaurant, Downstairs at Eric’s, because several employees tested positive for the disease.

The ski area above the town Mamula has called home for 34 years was supposed to stay open until Memorial Day but shut down abruptly at the peak of spring break in mid-March when the pandemic swept through Colorado’s high country.

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Now after 2½ months of lockdown and at the traditional kickoff to summer, Breckenridge is slowly reopening for some semblance of business, but Mamula is still very worried about both the town’s coming summer season and its financial bread and butter, next ski season.

“We're just going to be off all over the place,” Mamula said. “Business will be down, and things will be weird, and hopefully we won't get shut down again or we'll be in this like rolling shutdown sort of circumstance where I'm closed for two weeks because of an outbreak and the guy down the street is closed the following two weeks because of an outbreak.”

Even as the  state is allowing restaurants to open indoors up to 50% of capacity, with more seating outside — as long as it’s socially distanced — Mamula is having a hard time looking into his crystal ball at what the coming ski season will look like, when the weather turns colder and the virus possibly enjoys a second, stronger wave.

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“The ski area will probably have some weird lift line restrictions where you can only ride on the lift with your family, like they were doing right at the end there (in March),” Mamula said. “It's one of those things where I'm trying not to look too far out because it gets sort of depressing to see where we're going.”

Even as its Summit County neighbor Arapahoe Basin reopened for very limited skiing on May 27, Breckenridge had shifted its thinking toward summer season and a walkable Main Street concept that would close several blocks of the historic downtown to vehicle traffic and allow restaurants and retail to spread out onto the street.

Vail, which already has a pedestrian village, has expanded its liquor laws to allow for socially distanced public consumption in Vail Village, but all the big music, food and sports festivals have been canceled this summer, and the traditional Fourth of July parade will likely be stationary — begging the question, is that really even a parade?

Vail Resorts, the ski company that owns and operates both Vail and Breckenridge, offered a glimmer of hope recently when CEO Rob Katz wrote in an open letter that the company wants to have its chairlifts and gondolas running for summer activities starting in late June or early July.

“We intend to take our time to reopen,” Katz wrote, “and we acknowledge that we may be slower to open than others. Our goal is not to win the race to reopen, it’s to look back one day with great pride in our track record on safety.”

In his Epic By Nature podcast, however, Katz admitted to some serious trepidation about what it will mean to reopen for business and to some degree welcome back the world.

“I am worried about the future; I think it would be impossible not to be worried,” said Katz, who pioneered the multi-state, multi-national, season-long Epic Pass. “There’s still so many unknowns. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much uncertainty at any given point in my career.”

Vail Mayor Chapin said part of skiing’s appeal is its international connectivity — the chance to ride the chairlift with people from all over the country or different parts of the world. It’s also why he thinks ski towns are particularly susceptible to the virus that’s now killed more than 106,000 Americans.

“We were definitely an epicenter … when this first began, and that clearly had a lot to do with our appeal to international groups,” Chapin said. “We arguably do as many ski numbers as anybody else in the industry. It's usually us and Breckenridge and Whistler leading the pack in skier numbers. It dramatically increases your odds. This thing, as we've seen, just grows like wildfire.”

But Chapin pushed back on anyone wanting to point fingers at particular nations and viral places of origin during the pandemic — even as Vail was seen as a source of infection for wealthy Mexicans visiting during the Burton U.S. Open Snowboarding Championships in Vail in February. (That event has already been canceled for 2021.)

“First of all, no one's to blame for this; we need to understand that at this point,” Chapin said, while recovering from COVID-19 last March. “Blaming anybody or blaming anything or blaming any event is just really not where the focus should be.”

Going forward, both Mamula and Chapin, as restaurant owners, say the focus needs to be on best practices: Staying home if sick, getting tested if symptomatic, wearing masks, socially distancing and relentlessly washing hands and using hand sanitizer.

“It'd be great if we could get everybody on board with the social distancing and the mask-wearing,” Mamula said. “That would be a huge help to start. The problem is there's already people in the community that think the pandemic is a bunch of B.S. — that none of this is real, that if you wear a mask, you're violating your rights.

“It makes me nervous for not only spread of the disease, but the interactions that we're going to have to have with people.

“This is such a wedge that shouldn't be a wedge, and, honestly, I blame the federal government for that piece of it because they're stoking the division instead of saying, ‘Do the right thing, everybody; wear a mask,’ and everybody would wear a mask.”

Nothing but black diamonds

Borrowing ski terminology, Eagle County — home to Vail and Beaver Creek — has used what it’s calling a Transition Trail Map to move from the green terrain of stay-at-home to the blue phase of reopening hotels to 50% capacity and allowing socially distanced groups of up to 50 people. County officials hope to move to the black phase, with state approval, on June 22.

But for some, tourism-dependent ski towns have nothing but the toughest black diamond terrain ahead, especially as the aspen leaves turn gold, the snow starts flying and the virus still lingers.

Dave Ressler, CEO of Aspen Valley Hospital, says that his 25-bed critical access hospital “kept its powder dry” by holding off on large-scale testing for the virus until after that first wave in March had crested and as a result now has plenty of testing and capacity to handle the local community. That will change in a hurry if people are careless and there’s another surge.

“We are expecting increases as we open back up,” Ressler said. “But if our community viral transmission gets back to surge levels, it will overrun everything. It'll overwhelm our testing and our treatment capacity. So that's why we have to maintain the social distancing and the individual responsibility to keep the virus from spreading.”

Ressler emphasizes the five commitments of hand hygiene, masks, separation, staying at home if feeling sick and getting tested if symptomatic.

“We can test them, trace up to a point, but if the virus starts to get out of control, we’re going to have to essentially retreat back to the castle and just start managing the patients and probably go back into a suppression mode that saved us before (in March),” Ressler said.

Besides the benefit of hindsight, what can be done to keep small, isolated mountain towns of just a few thousand people safe from a deadly virus when tens of thousands of tourists descend from all corners of the globe?

For starters, says Aspen Skiing Company Vice President of Communications Jeff Hanle, “If you’re sick, don’t come. They should understand they’re coming to altitude with a respiratory illness and to areas where the size of the hospitals are more limited, so there’s going to be a lot of personal responsibility that comes into play for people and education on our part to let people know that if you are sick, this is not the place to come escape.”

Eyes on the world

While a man who had been skiing in northern Italy was the first diagnosed COVID-19 patient to visit Vail, it was a large group of Australians who regularly come to Colorado who made all the headlines in Aspen. Now Hanle, who said at the time that the virus knows no borders, acknowledges that the eyes of the ski industry will be on ski resorts down under.

“It’ll be good to watch what they do down in the Southern Hemisphere,” Hanle said. “New Zealand is good to ski, and Australia’s working on its plan, and we’ll just have to … take what we learn this summer and what we can learn from others, see where we are when winter rolls back around and come up with plans to get people back on the hill.”

Australian ski areas, of which Vail owns and operates three (Perisher, Mount Hotham and Falls Creek), typically open on the queen’s birthday — the first Monday in June, or what’s known as the June long weekend. That won’t happen this season, with resorts pushing back until later in June to put COVID-19 plans in place. This season, resorts are reportedly hoping to avoid a “Bondi Beach” moment, with massive crowds not really adhering to social distancing.

Or worse, the entanglement of messy lawsuits and legal investigation flying around Austria, with resorts and government officials being sued for allegedly not properly informing skiers of the risk of infection in lift lines and packed après-ski bars and then sending them packing to their home nations.

Chris Diamond of Ski Diamond Consulting and Publishing and author of last year’s “Ski Inc.” says his home of Routt County is being relatively conservative on the throttle of reopening despite very low numbers of infection in and around Steamboat Springs. The 44-year veteran of the ski industry who spent 17 years as COO of Steamboat feels that being outdoors, covered head to toe in ski gear, is one of the safest ways to recreate.

Still, he acknowledges people have to come inside eventually in the winter months, shedding gear to use restrooms and restaurants, and that’s where the real danger lurks.

“So we need to learn from just the summer transition in the mountain towns, but also the ski areas (like A-Basin) reopening, and then of course in the Southern Hemisphere. We're going to have lots of beta sites to look at,” Diamond said.

But he expects the numbers of international travelers coming to Colorado slopes to be down.

"I think, as a given, international (travel) will be way off. It's just the nervousness about (flying), and you're not going to have the same number of flights or probably the pricing that we've enjoyed.”

Diamond also thinks there will be a bumpy start to Colorado’s ski season, which typically starts slowly in mid-November and then ramps up to the hugely important Christmas and New Year’s holidays that can account for fully 25% of an entire year’s revenues for some ski businesses.

“I don't see any way that anybody would be assuming things as normal for that December, early January crunch,” Diamond said. "Now the wildcard, of course, is if there's a second wave (of the virus).”

Aspen’s Hanle says he thinks resorts will be better prepared for that possibility, to some degree.

“We all — not just the ski industry, but everyone — have learned some new practices from this, and hopefully that will allow people to operate in a more limited capacity,” Hanle said. “We’ve learned disinfecting practices, additional cleaning practices and distancing practices, and if that’s the case, then we may be able to continue to operate even if there is a resurgence in the virus.”

Chris Romer, president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, the valley-wide chamber of commerce in Eagle County, says Vail is fortunate because of its proximity to Denver and other Front Range cities. But he has plenty of concerns for both this summer and next ski season for his members.

“My biggest concern is the fear and uncertainty. This manifests itself in the desire to vacation closer to home or within a drive-market radius,” Romer said. “We’re fortunate to have a major metropolitan area within two hours, depending on traffic, of course, and are likely to be impacted by air service restrictions and perceived risk or lack of desire to fly.”

Skiers will find a way to ski, though, and he’s confident the love of the sport will carry through.

“We benefit in some regards as skiers are emotionally connected to the sport — it is who they are, part of their personality — and we benefit from multi-generational family vacations and the outdoor nature of our community,” Romer added. “The biggest economic risk is our dependence on international and major metropolitan visitation from areas that have high population density and have been severely impacted by COVID.”

Ready for the second wave

Steamboat’s Diamond, who’s a past director and chairman of the statewide ski-industry lobbying group Colorado Ski Country USA, said there needs to be a plan for a second viral wave.

“I assume all that at the state level and at the national level through our trade associations that the powers that be are putting in place sort of the protocols for, ‘OK, if there's a second wave, what's our decision process going to be?’” Diamond said.

“It needs to be an agreed-upon war plan, signed off by the governor and the resorts so that there's no last-minute negotiating, no surprises.”

Eagle County Public Health and Environment Director Heath Harmon agrees that this summer will be critical in getting ready for the fall and winter in terms of building “muscle memory” in local businesses as far as maintaining social distancing requirements.

“For all intents and purposes the summer is sort of that test run,” Harmon said. “What are the right protocols that we’re putting in place and are they working? Are there areas that aren’t working as well? Are there things that we’re going to want to improve upon? How is it that we can continue to work with our business partners to develop and revise our protocols … we don’t have a crystal ball for exactly what to expect in the fall.”

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