VAIL — The lift operator in the maze at Vail Village’s Gondola One tilts his head back and hollers: “Masks up please!”
There are no unmasked skiers in the line, but maybe some masks have slipped below noses. It’s the second day of operations at Vail ski area — a busy Saturday — and skiers are filling the mountain through three entry points.
“The compliance I’m seeing is probably 75% and the ski area employees are very adamant. They are yelling at people who don’t have their mask up,” said longtime Vail skier Charlie Vogel, who skis just about every day. “I heard one employee yell ‘Put your mask up, save the season.’ That’s a good way to look at this.”
Masks on all faces. Social distancing. Lots of warning signs, hand washing, worker training and remote transactions. Not much of anything will happen indoors. Welcome to the weirdest ski season ever.
The snow is falling and the lifts are turning. Even as the state and counties impose increasingly strict limitations and regulations on private businesses, Colorado’s roughly $5 billion ski industry is moving forward without delay.
The Colorado Sun pieced together a look at operating plans across the state, using interviews and public records requests, and while the plans for the season are detailed and dense, they closely follow what’s been planned for months. Operating plans for Vail and Beaver Creek, for example, were approved by Eagle County and state public health officials and closely follow ski resort guidance issued in October by the state.
The sticky point in that resort guidance from the state involved resorts working in a “community-wide effort” to “create opportunities” for housing guests who become ill during their holiday and are unable to travel home.
No one quite knew what housing would look like for tourists sick with COVID-19, the virulent virus that shut down ski areas in March and threatens to shut down businesses again this winter. It’s still not totally clear. Resort operating plans set aside employee housing units for workers who need to quarantine or isolate, but they seem to largely skip over the details for “isolation housing” for guests, as required by the state’s draft guidance released Oct. 14.
Ski areas that have lodging as part of their operations are asked to reserve a portion of available units for guests who need to extend their stay due to quarantine. Ski areas have told the state they don’t expect to see hotels and lodges fully booked, so rooms will be available.
“Ski areas are also asked to message to their guests that they will be required to extend their stay and quarantine should they test positive for COVID-19 during their stay,” a spokeswoman from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said, noting that resorts are working with local health departments to provide isolation housing.
Vail Resorts spokeswoman Sara Olson said the company’s lodging properties were ready to assist guests in an emergency.
“There are currently no formal quarantine or isolation guidelines for the lodging industry set by the state or by the counties where we operate,” Olson said. “But we remain in regular contact with them, and our winter operating plans are clear that we’ll adopt any guidelines that are enacted.”
The move to “High Risk” Level Orange late last week prodded lodges and businesses across the Roaring Fork Valley and other destination areas to issue an SOS.
The “Save Our Season” message targets locals and businesses. There are not many guests in the high country right now, but COVID-19 case counts in ski country’s Eagle, Grand, Pitkin, Routt, San Miguel and Summit counties are climbing.
“We are calling on locals to recommit to the five commitments of containment,” said Aspen Chamber president Debbie Braun, describing the social distancing, masks, hand-washing, testing and self-quarantining strategies deployed to limit the spread of contagion. “We have to get locals on board. The SOS is going out across all our valleys.”
In Pitkin County, local businesses have installed additional protective measures on top of those required in Level Orange. They are calling it Orange-plus.
Lodges are keeping rooms empty for 72 hours after guests leave, to make sure they are cleaned. The valley’s hotels are not trending toward 100% capacity this winter, so each hotel expects to have availability for ill guests, and the public health department has contracted with some hotels to assure availability for out-of-towners who are sick, Braun said.
There is additional messaging everywhere, including advance texts and emails to visitors making sure they know the rules and expectations. If a visitor tests positive, they will be required to quarantine and that is not a free service, Braun said.
“If you have to isolate, you are going to have to pay,” Braun said. “People need to be very aware when they come to town, and we need to make sure they understand our public health orders.”
On Tuesday evening, Aspen Skiing Co. announced that lift tickets were sold out for Thursday and Friday at its four ski areas, which are set to open this week. The company said Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk had reached capacity “based on open terrain and facilities for those days.” Few can remember a previous time when Aspen Skiing Co. — or any major resort operator, for that matter — sold out of lift tickets.
Vail Resorts in August announced plans for its first reservation system, requiring skiers to book their ski days ahead of time. Other resorts are slowly coming around to reservations, especially for skiers using partner passes, like the Ikon Pass. Skiers using the Ikon Pass need to make reservations to ski Arapahoe Basin, Aspen Snowmass, Montana’s Big Sky, Wyoming’s Jackson Hole and Taos in New Mexico, as well as for several other hills that are partnered with operator Alterra Mountain Co.
Similar to other resorts, the Vail and Beaver Creek operating plans discourage gatherings. Resort-managed properties, including parking lots, will limit groups. There will be signs galore, and vats of hand sanitizer and workers in common areas will follow detailed cleaning procedures. Buying food and drinks will be largely cashless and touchless. Shuttles will run at 50% capacity, which will be interesting for ski areas that rely largely on big buses to move skiers between parking lots and slopes, like Copper Mountain and Beaver Creek. Workspaces, such as lift houses and patrol facilities, also will limit occupancy to 50%.
Capacities at indoor restaurants will shift along with county risk levels. Vail’s sprawling Two Elk cafeteria, for example, will allow only 200 people when Eagle County is at the more restrictive Safer At Home Level Orange 3 but could open to 650 at the least restrictive level, Protect Our Neighbors.
For reference, Eagle County last week moved to Level Orange, which limits most indoor facilities to 25% capacity and caps outdoor events at 75 people.
Lifts will be loaded only with people in the same group, so no chatting with strangers on the chair. And no drinking at bars, although the mountain operating plans allow for the sale of prepackaged beer and wine.
“Do I feel safe up there? The catwalk down from (Chair) 4 is exciting, I’ll say that. Lots of different skill levels on that,” said Vail’s David Ketterer as he came off the mountain last Saturday, his mask tucked just below his eyes. “The reservation system is working pretty good. Better than I thought it would be. And I think the masks are working, too. I think it’s a good idea to have all these masks.”
The operating plans for Vail and Beaver Creek — obtained by The Colorado Sun from Eagle County using a Colorado Open Records Act request — allow uphill skiing outside of operating hours on designated routes.
Ski schools have a long list of student and teacher screening processes and social-distancing plans. Last week, the resorts shifted upcoming ski lessons to private lessons as Eagle County moved to Level Orange. In Summit County public health officials are asking Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain and Keystone ski areas to reduce overall capacity this week, following the county’s move to Level Red last week.
Publicly held Vail Resorts did not detail capacity limits in the Vail and Beaver Creek operating plans but said its resorts would coordinate with local and state officials to limit capacities indoors should Eagle County move to the most restrictive risk levels.
Vail and Beaver Creek will require each resident of employee housing to test negative for COVID-19 prior to moving in, and the resorts will provide free testing. The resorts also are setting aside 5% of their beds for employees who fall ill and must quarantine.
Aspen Skiing Co., which recently had its operating plan approved by Pitkin County’s health department, has housing for ill workers and is working with the lodging community on isolation housing plans for guests. Most lodging properties in the Roaring Fork Valley are capping occupancy at 70%, so the company feels confident there will be adequate space to take care of sick guests if needed, said Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle.
“We don’t think this is a season-long solution,” Hanle said, “but we will make sure we have space to accommodate guests in isolation.”
In responding to the state’ requirement for details about how resorts will work with the local community, Aspen Skiing Co.’s answer was “in every way,” Hanle said.
An informal survey of several large lodges in Eagle and Pitkin counties found most ready to accommodate ill guests if the need arises. The slopeside Antlers at Vail, for example, has long offered discount rates for patients at Vail Health who have been either injured or are visiting for elective surgery. The lodge is not planning to be booked at 100% this winter, manager Magda King said.
“If we have a case of someone getting sick, we will work with local health authorities to follow all the provided guidance and we will indeed extend our special discount to those sick guests,” King said.
Rob Perlman, the boss at Steamboat ski area, delayed his opening last week. On a normal season, he would be happy to open with one lift and couple runs.
“But this is not a normal year,” he said. “We would get crushed.”
Perlman and his team have a dense list of regulations to limit the spread of COVID-19, including lots of warnings for incoming guests. Top of the list: if anyone is feeling ill, please don’t travel to town.
“It’s a shared responsibility,” Perlman said, describing “the most liberal refund and credit system” Steamboat has ever offered in case someone’s plans change due to illness. “We are doing a ton of stuff on our end, but we expect our guests to help us get open and stay open.”
His team has set aside employee housing in case workers get sick. But since most worker housing tends to involve two or more people living in the same unit, it’s likely that if one person tests positive, the entire household will be quarantining in place.
Steamboat also is not expecting full occupancy this season, so there is availability for guests who must stay in their rooms if they test positive.
“We deal with that stuff all the time when someone wants to extend their stay,” he said.
The original rule from the state seemed to direct resorts to lock away sections of rooms for potentially sick guests, but that didn’t match the requirements imposed on the lodging industry.
“We were like, hey, you can’t treat ski resorts differently than you treat the rest of the lodging community and the state of Colorado,” Perlman said. “Thankfully, those discussions ended with a rational approach we are seeing now.”