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Colorado ski resorts remain open, but change chairlift rules and dining options to avoid coronavirus spread

Large gatherings have been banned in Colorado ski counties to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but lift lines aren’t included so resorts are still open while mountains across Europe and Asia close for the season

Skiers ride the Paradise lift at Crested Butte Mountain Resort on Feb. 14, 2019. The Paradise lift accesses intermediate terrain in Paradise Bowl and the more difficult terrain of the North Face to the west and the High Lift to the east. The Paradise lift has taken much of the skier load up the mountain since the closing of the Teocalli chairlift at the beginning of the 2018-19 season. At times the Paradise lift has had its share of problems. Many skiers were forced to walk out of Paradise Bowl to the base after the lift stopped due to repair issues in weeks past. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Skiers ride the Paradise lift at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in February 2019. Colorado's ski resorts are taking extraordinary measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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UPDATE AT 8:42 P.M. ON SATURDAY MARCH 14, 2020: Colorado Gov. Jared Polis orders all ski resorts to close in extraordinary move

Increasing numbers of cases of the new coronavirus in the high country prodded health officials in Summit, Eagle and Pitkin counties to ban gatherings of more than 50 people.

But the health orders in ski country exempted “lift lines,” making sure not to sever the economic lifeline that supports mountain communities in March. 

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The count of presumed positive COVID-19 cases climbed in Colorado to 77 on Friday, including a new case in Gunnison County. One person, a woman in her 80s from El Paso County, has died.

But Colorado ski resorts remained open for business this week, while making adjustments. On one mitten, resort social feeds were trumpeting new snow late in the week. On the other, resorts issued rare disclaimers asking older and immune-compromised guests to stay home. 

And they were tweaking policies for gondolas and chairlifts. In Pitkin County, where Gov. Jared Polis said transmission rates for COVID-19 are the highest in Colorado, Aspen Skiing Co. fired up its venerable Little Nell chair to give skiers alternative access up the hill if they were averse to riding the Silver Queen Gondola. Aspen Skiing has three gondolas at its four resorts, which includes the super-short, open-air people mover at Snowmass. 

Lift attendants on Friday were disinfecting each gondola car before skiers loaded. They were only loading groups that were together, meaning a single skiers or pairs did not have to load with strangers. 

The resort operator has pulled tables at its restaurants, making sure to keep that critical 6-foot distance between diners. And Aspen Skiing Co. — like most every resort operator in the state — has canceled all its events. That list is long and includes cancer fundraiser Pink Vail, the World Pro Ski Tour World Championships at Taos, the U.S. Alpine Tech Championships at Aspen Highlands and the NASTAR National Championships at Snowmass.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“I’ve had a NASTAR racer reach out to me twice asking if I was sure he shouldn’t come. He’s 83. I just kept telling him, ‘I’m sorry but you really shouldn’t come,’” Aspen Skiing spokesman Jeff Hanle said. 

At Vail Resorts’ North American resorts — including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Crested Butte — lift attendants are following the same “familial” loading policies for gondola cars and chairlifts, with the operator asking skiers to ride “with their parties only.”

(Telluride on Thursday installed a similar policy for its gondola.) 

Vail Resorts late Friday announced they were eliminating hot-food service at on-mountain, quick-serve cafeterias and serving only “limited pre-packaged food options.”

Read more outdoors stories from The Colorado Sun.

The continent’s largest operator said it would post signs reminding visitors about social distancing and would have employees ready to “help encourage safe protocols,” adding a new task for the company’s renowned “yellow-jackets” who enforce on-mountain safety rules. The company reiterated the warning of health officials, advising that people at risk of illness or skiers who are 60 or older “should stay home.”  

On Friday, resorts across Austria and Switzerland joined ski areas in China, South Korea, Italy and Norway in closing to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. On Friday, several U.S. resorts closed citing the global pandemic, including Vermont’s Jay Peak, Michigan’s Nub’s Nob, Massachusetts’ Catamount and Berkshire East and Mt. Abram in Maine. 

Skiers and snowboarders get off a chairlift at the summit of Eldora Mountain Resort in Boulder County on Sunday, Nov. 4, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But no Colorado resorts announced plans for closing. Forest Service and industry insiders said they have not heard talk of closures and representatives from major resorts said they were “monitoring the situation” but not making plans to turn off the lifts. Businesses near resorts on Friday started closing though, including the Shakedown Bar in Vail Village and Vail’s Sweet Basil restaurant, where an employee recently tested presumptive positive for the COVID-19 virus.

“We have had this discussion about why we don’t shut down,” Hanle said. “We think people need a release. If families are sitting in their house for two weeks and they have an ability to do something and we have the ability to offer an outdoor experience where you are not necessarily in close contact with other people — where you can go outside and have that release valve — we can offer that escape to them. We need outdoor recreation right now and we currently are able to offer that and we think it’s important.”

The Silver Queen Gondola on Aspen Mountain in March 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis agreed on Friday

“Outdoor recreation is a great thing to do during this time,” he said. “Hiking, biking, these are wonderful things to do with your family that are safe and healthy.”

Here’s a quick glimpse of a few scenes — call them Cov-oddities — from across the mountains this week. 

  • A sea of blue-jacketed ski instructors lined up Friday morning at Beaver Creek ready to teach skiers that did not show. 
  • Traffic was slow at Aspen Skiing Co.’s four hills on Friday, but the operator tallied 7,792 skiers at midday, which is down from the same day last year “but not as low as we expected,” Hanle said.
  • An estimated 300 to 400 people lined up at the Costco in Gypsum before it opened on Friday, apparently eager to scoop up all the meat and toilet paper.
  • The Telluride Free Box — a decades long take something or leave something feature in the town — was shut down with boards nailed over the shelves.

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