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COVID-19’s Third Wave Hitting as Colorado’s Ski Season Begins

This article and photo first appeared in U.S. News on November 25, 2020.

A sign on a ski rack reminds people of coronavirus restrictions on opening day at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Breckenridge, Colo., on Nov. 13, 2020. Ski areas are responding to the coronavirus pandemic by limiting the number of guests on the mountain through reservation systems, requiring masks and encouraging social distancing. (MICHAEL CIAGLO/GETTY IMAGES)

As the snow deepens in Colorado’s Front Range, uncertainty owns the slopes in some of America’s top skiing destinations.

The largest players in the state’s multibillion-dollar ski industry spent the summer drawing up plans that would allow resorts to operate through another pandemic winter. Engineers were hired to re-imagine lift lines. Apps and no-touch kiosks were rushed to readiness. Parking attendants prepared to break up tailgate parties thrown by skiers unable to hit the slope-side bars.

Those months of effort aimed at twinned goals: opening, as hills above Aspen and Vail began to do days ago, and staying open. Now what some are calling the third wave of COVID-19 threatens to wash that all away.

“Our mantra and philosophy going into this winter is that safety is service,” says spokesperson John Plack of Vail Resorts, which operates 37 ski resorts in the United States and Australia.

“We’ve got these vast mountains with this inherent ability to physically distance, so our job is to get people up there on the mountain safely,” Plack continues by phone from Vail. “That’s the outlet that I know I need, and I think our communities need.”

Skiing is big business in Colorado. One 2015 study funded by the industry pegged its economic contribution at $4.8 billion, supporting more than 46,000 workers. The state alone accounts for 22% of the nation’s winter sports economy.

The coronavirus arrived as the ski season was winding down last spring, and resort operators were able to offset some of those losses through summer tourism as Americans vacationed closer to home. Vail Resorts, for example, posted modest profits for the fiscal year ending in September; the company made $98.8 million, according to its year-end quarterly report, a 67% dip from 2019 but enough to stay in the black.

Whether the nascent season will boom or bust depends largely on the pandemic.

As with so much else, the coronavirus poses a tricky problem in ski areas. With daily attendance limits in place across Colorado, it will be harder for skiers to pass the disease … at least while skiing. It’s the rest of the experience – the lift lines, the eateries, the warming spaces and bathrooms – where COVID-19 could flourish.

With an eye on those trouble spots, Colorado directed ski area operators to work with county health officials to formulate detailed plans addressing every aspect of their operations. Each agreement has subtle differences, but all tie operational levels to the COVID-19 infection rates in the community.

The agreements run dozens of pages, describing in granular detail how lodges and lifts will operate. Skiers must wear a real mask, not just a fleece face covering – in any common space.

“In each plan, ski areas are required to explain how they will be prepared to scale operations up or down depending on epidemiological developments due to COVID-19,” a spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health said by email.

Those schemes were drawn up weeks ago, before infection rates began skyrocketing. Counties in the heart of Colorado ski country are now nearing the line at which state rules mandate a stay-at-home order.

If the current trends continue, Pitkin County – home to the Aspen and Snowmass ski resorts, and 17,767 people – is likely to cross that line shortly after Thanksgiving.

A stay-at-home order alone would not necessarily shutter the ski lifts, though it would end any inside dining. A worsening pandemic could also prompt a shutdown to preserve public health.

Pitkin County health officials on Thursday put forward a collection of new, more stringent policies aimed at curtailing gatherings and other community activities primed to spread the virus. Speaking in a Zoom meeting attended by more than 500 people, Jordana Sabella of Pitkin County Public Health said the hope is to “help curb that incidence rate and get this under control so that we can we can protect our health, we can protect our schools, we can save our winter and our business.”

[MAP: The Spread of Coronavirus]

Developed this fall, the ski resort restrictions have proven contentious across the state.

More than 100 Colorado residents, business owners and tourists weighed in after state officials released the state’s proposed plan to address coronavirus spread at ski areas. Fourteen said flatly that they would never comply with the regulations; one attendee at an October meeting demanded Gov. Jared Polis’ resignation.

A more measured critic described the pandemic as “a tough nut to crack” and urged the state “to protect local residents first from globe-trotting viruses,” while others questioned the necessity of ridership caps on public transit, suggested social-distancing requirements were unwarranted outside or wondered how they were supposed to get to work. One season pass holder bothered by the reservation systems in place at some resorts opined that “this is getting ridiculous.”

While shutting out tourism completely would keep the community safe from COVID-19, such a move would cause other troubling impacts worth considering, says Dave Ressler, CEO of 25-bed Aspen Valley Hospital. The end of ski season would hit residents’ mental health and the area’s economy hard, he said.

“We’ve got to find the right balance between keeping the community open and keeping it safe,” Ressler said during the Thursday night community meeting in Aspen.

Preventing and tracking outbreaks can be particularly challenging in transient, tourism-focused towns and cities, experts say. Out-of-town skiers, who contributed mightily to the 1.5 million skier visits logged at the county’s largest resorts in 2019, are unlikely to be counted in the county’s COVID-19 tally unless they test positive during their visit. But infection could spread the disease to residents, and tourists sickened during a visit could wind up in rural hospitals ill-suited to deal with a rush of acutely ill COVID-19 patients.

That fear of swamped hospitals prompted Vail Health CEO Will Cook in neighboring Eagle County to speak out in March. Cook warned then that, unless the community checked the virus, the 56-bed hospital could be overwhelmed.

COVID-19 hospitalizations remain rare in Vail, Cook says by email, but the infection rate is high and climbing. Cook is watching for a ripple effect; as other, larger hospitals take on more COVID-19 patients, it becomes more difficult for Vail Health to transfer those who need advanced care. Burnout that Cook says is “happening to staff and providers all over the world” is a concern.

As was the case elsewhere, Eagle County saw spikes in infections after the Fourth of July and Halloween. Cook points to gatherings as the key driver, and sees restraint in the community as key to keeping the holidays from accelerating what are already bad trends.

As of Monday, the number of people hospitalized or testing positive for COVID-19 was declining slightly, though 20% of all hospital beds in Colorado were occupied by suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients. While the state’s daily death toll had declined substantially from the daily high of 40 in April, new infections are being reported at 10 times the volume recorded during that initial COVID-19 wave. The rate of COVID-19 tests coming back positive, a key indicator that could prompt greater restrictions, was inching upward.

Eagle and Pitkin counties were both considered “high risk” areas under state guidelines and were recording hundreds of new infections each week.

Though he knew it was coming and had been preparing for months, self-described “ski bum” and Aspen Skiing Company President Mike Kaplan says the coronavirus’ third wave still took him by surprise. Its severity was shocking, Kaplan says, as was its timing.

Kaplan cast the coronavirus as a challenge that might be overcome if skiers follow the rules, minimize the risks and plan ahead. He worries about “opening day enthusiasm” when the lifts as Aspen and Snowmass start moving, but asserts that skiers will protect one another.

“We’re skiers. We all take responsibility for our own safety and… we don’t jeopardize the safety of others. That’s exactly what we’ve got to do with COVID,” Kaplan says. “I think we can bend this curve, and that we can get open and stay open.”

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