Gov. Jared Polis on Saturday night issued an extraordinary executive order requiring all Colorado ski resorts to close, an announcement that came just hours after operators across the state preemptively said they were shutting down, many of them indefinitely, in response to the new coronavirus.
The order is set to last one week, though the governor’s office said Polis “may amend this executive order accordingly.”
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The order marks the most significant use of Polis’ powers since he declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, which gave him the ability to close buildings, order quarantines, halt travel, suspend rules and ban public gatherings.
Polis, a Democrat, has said he’s been trying to limit the use of those powers to avoid imposing draconian measures on Coloradans. Earlier this week, for instance, he urged Coloradans to cancel gatherings of 250 or more, but didn’t go so far as to ban them.
But at the same time Polis has also vowed to wield his powers should they become necessary.
“Never would I have believed that a global pandemic would force the temporary closure of our world-class ski resorts. I have been skiing since I was 4 years old. Our family has had a place in Vail for three decades. And, like so many Colorado families, we were planning a ski trip with our kids over their spring break next weekend. Beyond being a major part of our way of life, skiing supports our workers and businesses,” Polis said in a written statement Saturday night.
The governor added: “It is with a profound sense of pain and grim responsibility that I take the agonizing action that this moment demands. I take solace in knowing that while we will be temporarily closed for business, we will be saving the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Coloradans in the days and weeks ahead.”
There were more than 100 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in Colorado through midday Saturday. Many of those were in the high country, where the virus has for days been circulating via community spread and officials have been warning the state is vulnerable to an overwhelmed medical system.
In Eagle County, where Vail and Beaver Creek are, there were 20 COVID-19 cases. In Aspen, there were 11.
But it is also the peak of the ski season, with droves of people set to vacation in the mountains for spring break. The closures will likely deal a crippling economic blow to Colorado’s tourism economy. And the season was healthy, with big crowds and above-average snowpacks.
Earlier on Saturday, Polis released a statement cheering the decision by Vail Resorts to close its North American ski areas starting Sunday and lasting until March 22, a move that was quickly followed by Alterra Mountain Co., which shuttered its 15 North American resorts. Arapahoe Basin and Loveland Ski areas also said they were shutting down.
Polis, in his statement following Vail Resorts’ announcement, urged other mountain resorts to follow suit. But he did not indicate that just a few hours later he was going to follow up with an order requiring other ski areas to take the same action.
Later on, Aspen Skiing Co. and Telluride said they were closing their mountains not by choice, but because they were ordered to by the governor.
“We are closing all ski operations, ancillary businesses (except Limelight Aspen) and canceling all events effective immediately by order of the governor of the State of Colorado,” Aspen said in a notice posted on its website.
“We are aware of the great cost that mountain communities face if our downhill ski resorts close, even temporarily,” Polis’ executive order says. “These costs will be borne by local residents and businesses, and by the individuals and families who come to Colorado to enjoy our beautiful mountains and world-renowned skiing. But in the face of this pandemic emergency we cannot hesitate to protect public health and safety.”
Last March and April, the Town of Vail collected $5 million in sales tax revenue, which was a little more than a quarter of the total collection of $19.1 million for the 2018-19 ski season. That compares to $4.7 million in sales tax revenue in March and April 2018, when the town collected $17.54 million for the 2017-18 season.
The order cited the potential strain that could be put on high country hospitals if ski areas were to remain open and the coronavirus continues to spread.
“This is a bad, bad move to take away an activity like this from the state,” said Monarch ski area owner Bob Nicolls, who last year saw Monarch post its best year ever with 193,000 visits and record revenue. This year he was on track to log 210,000 visits, but closed Saturday with 190,000.
“So what, we don’t make as much money. Big deal,” he said. “But this is something that Coloradans can do at a time when they really need something to do, you know.”
Nicolls is not the only small resort owner reeling from the governor’s late-night order to close the next day.
Aaron Brill, the co-owner of Silverton Mountain, expressed sympathy for people who were suffering from illness, but wondered why the ski industry had been singled out.
“There is a disconnect by the governor who doesn’t realize the difference between Vail Resorts and small independent ski areas,” Brill said, noting that while a busy day at Vail ski area, with 15,000 or more people could be a health issue, but “there are thousands of restaurants in the state that see more people per day than we do at Silverton Mountain.”
Like Nicolls, it isn’t about money for Brill. His mountain is open for unguided skiing this week and that isn’t a big moneymaker for him, he said.
“This is about keeping our employees who rely on us to survive employed,” Brill said. “I hope it’s not the case of the big ski resorts pushing the governor for this closure as an excuse to call the season early.”
Davey Pitcher, the owner of Wolf Creek ski area, just made a big order for food for the coming week.
Pagosa Springs is full. He had a busy day at the southern Colorado ski area his family has owned and operated for decades.
“The manner in which this was done puts us in a very compromised position. I mean it’s 9 o’clock at night,” Pitcher said. “Apparently the governor has been in close communication with Vail and Aspen and we haven’t received any communication from the governor’s office indicating that we should even prepare for this. Right now we are just reeling. This is a small community and everyone in town is relying on these guests who are here to ski. The repercussions of this will be long lasting.”
A spokesman for Polis said the governor didn’t take the decision lightly.
Polis went ahead with the move because some resorts wouldn’t close voluntarily.
Al Henceroth, Arapahoe Basin’s chief, said although thousands of people asked him to keep the hill open, he supported the governor’s decision.
“We tried our very best to be creative and modify operations to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Unfortunately, it is time to close,” he wrote in a blog post to his customers. “We have every intention of reopening. The very best skiing at A-Basin is yet to come. As soon as it makes sense to reopen, we will reopen. It is unclear when that will be. I plan on sharing several East Wall hikes and skis with many of you this spring.”
Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade group that represents many of the state’s resorts, apologized to visitors.
“We encourage guests to reach out directly to the ski area they planned to visit for further information,” the organization said in a written statement. “Please be patient during this time as ski areas will be receiving a high volume of calls and inquiries.”