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Colorado health officials on March 15, 2019, advised people who live in four mountain counties, including Gunnison County, to stay away from other people because of high rates of infection by the new coronavirus,. A sign over Colorado 135 at the county line, affirmed the advisory, but said the county will reopen to tourism on April 8, 2020. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Skiers in Colorado’s mountain towns spend big money in March and early April.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
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A Colorado Sun analysis of taxable sales in 13 ski towns over the past two years shows residents and visitors spending more than $500 million in the last two months of ski season. But with resorts ordered closed for at least the next week and possibly the rest of the season because of the new coronavirus, and restaurants, bars, hotels and clothing stores shut down by decree as well, most — if not all — of that revenue is at risk.

“We always talk about the fabric of our community. Well it’s being tested. It’s time to show the world how tough we really are,” said Michael Martelon, the president and CEO of the Telluride Tourism Board. 

Telluride’s San Miguel County on Monday declared a state of emergency and ordered all bars and restaurants to close for at least two days.

Similar closure orders for businesses in Gunnison County and Summit County followed as federal and state health officials reduced the number of people recommended for gatherings to 10 from 50. Later in the afternoon on Monday, Gov. Jared Polis ordered all of Colorado’s restaurants and bars closed for at least 30 days.

Main Street through Gunnison’s downtown — usually so busy on a weekday that you can’t find parking — was silent on March 16, 2020, even before Gov. Jared Polis ordered all shops and restaurants to stop in-person service for a month due to COVID-19 concerns. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting on Monday projected the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, posed “a significant risk” to the state’s economy. The office projected that revenues coming into the state’s General Fund would fall by more than $300 million in fiscal 2019-20, which ends June 30, and more than $400 million in fiscal 2020-21, which begins July 1. 

It’s hard to assess the exact economic damage a mountain community suffers when it loses half of the ski season’s busiest month.

MORE: Colorado governor orders closure of all restaurants and bars for at least 30 days

But economic boosters across the high country were scrambling to lessen the blow on Monday. Many hoped the swift, vigorous actions pursued by county health officials would not only curtail the spread of  COVID-19, but help local communities qualify for federal emergency relief. (The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved the Families First Coronavirus Response Act on Friday, promising boosts to paid leave and unemployment insurance programs.) 

“Our hourly workers are really going to take this on the chin,” said John Norton, the executive director of the Tourism Association Prosperity Partnership in Gunnison County, where health officials on Monday closed all short-term housing and asked all visitors to leave immediately and self-isolate when they get home.

Scroll through the chart below.

Last year Gunnison County’s Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte reported $22.7 million in taxable spending in March and April. That money trickled through restaurants, bars and shops and fueled a vibrant resort economy.  

United and American airlines canceled flights in and out of Gunnison later this week, relieving the community from its financial responsibility to fill seats on those flights. And as the community prepared to shelter in place without tourists, economic boosters in mountain towns started turning their worries to summer. 

Restaurants and cafes in Gunnison have closed to regroup in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak. Some may reopen as carry-out only, which is allowed under Gov. Jared Polis’ March 16, 2020, order shutting down in-person dining and drinking for a month. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Without heads in beds right now, lodging-fueled budgets for summer marketing will take a hit. Smaller marketing budgets means even if the pandemic settles down by the summer season, there might not be money to support campaigns to lure visitors or flights into regional airports, which are often financed by community dollars guaranteeing visitors will fill seats.  

And then there’s the whole goal of the closures and social distancing: to reduce the number of people who can get sick right now so that hospitals are not overwhelmed. 

“If we are successful in pushing down the spike and smoothing out the curve — which is our goal and it’s the right goal — that means COVID-19 lasts longer, right?” Norton said. “To have March cut in half is awful. To miss out on July would be a disaster.”

Martelon shared the worry about summer, which for Telluride is often busier than winter with a festival nearly every weekend beginning on Memorial Day Weekend. 

“I’m immediately concerned about summer,” Martelon said. “We have the most iconic festivals of any state in the union and the timing of the bell curve will be very important to us and all mountain communities but especially here where the festivals are literally a part of our heritage. We are looking at scenarios that are very sobering.”

The 20-year-old Telluride Foundation over the weekend directed reserve funds and part of its budget for its 20th anniversary celebration toward a COVID-19 response fund. The foundation is offering emergency assistance grants to food banks, clinics, schools delivering lunches and even providers of hot spots so students can access the internet. It’s also offering hardship grants for local residents who are out of work.

“A lot of people are going to lose their jobs, but they still have to pay rent,” said Paul Major, the executive director of the foundation. “We will provide targeted assistance to make sure families don’t get into crisis.”

In the Vail Valley, businesses were bracing for a looming closure order that followed other high-country counties. The Vail Valley Partnership outlined resources available through the Small Business Administration, including steps business owners need to take to qualify for disaster and economic injury loans. 

“We know the economic impact of this has the potential to be as impactful as the illness component, maybe even more,” said Chris Romer, the respondent and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership. 

Skiers make tracks at Vail Mountain on December 18, 2019. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Lucy Kay, the president of the Breckenridge Tourism Office, said her team is moving beyond its marketing role and drafting a recovery plan tourist-dependent businesses in one of Colorado’s most visited mountain destinations. 

To help plan for the uncertain future, Kay is estimating a 20% to 30% decline in business for Breckenridge, where last March and April visitors and residents spent $112 million in lodges, restaurants, shops and bars

“The good news here is we have May. May is like a natural fire break for us,” Kay said of the month when tourism businesses pretty much close down in the mountains. “We have cancelled events but are thinking about things we can implement quickly in the last summer and fall to make up for any losses this spring and summer. But I’m counting on a normal summer up here.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, two teenage girls and a dog named Gravy. He writes The Outsider, a weekly newsletter covering the outdoors industry from the inside out. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors,...