By John Marshall, The Associated Press
ASPEN — March is Aspen’s moneymaking season as spring breakers and families head to the mountains to ski.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, all four Aspen/Snowmass ski mountains shut down, along with nearly everything else in the alpine town, which banks on tourism dollars.
Then a funny thing happened: As people became more accustomed to life in masks and began venturing out more, Aspen again became a destination.
The small town made people feel safer than in big, crowded cities. Outdoor activities are Aspen’s calling card, and the mountains were a perfect place to escape the doldrums of months-long lockdowns.
Precautions by local government and businesses — and the conscientiousness of nearly everyone in town — added a layer of comfort.
“Aspen and all the other mountain towns in Colorado actually did really well because people want to get out of the metropolitan areas and get to the clean air of the mountains,” said Barclay Dodge, chef and owner of Bosq restaurant in downtown Aspen. “We actually did really well this summer. The town was thriving and, surprisingly, it thrived in a safe manner.”
Aspen is known as an outdoor mecca, from hiking, biking and rafting in the warm months to skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. As the pandemic wore on and health officials began encouraging people to get out and exercise, the town became a popular spot once again.
Since Aspen has just three ICU beds, residents and the town were extra cautious with the coronavirus. As restrictions started being lifted in Colorado around the end of May, local businesses took a proactive approach to safety.
Aspen instituted an indoor mask mandate in late April and created a mandatory mask zone in most of downtown in July. Signs were placed all over downtown to alert locals and tourists to the mandate and encourage social distancing.
Security personnel and volunteers gently remind people to wear their masks, and confrontations have been rare. Hikers pull up their masks when crossing paths on the trails.
Businesses put limits on the number of customers allowed in at a time, often with an employee at the front door to keep track.
Tickets for the gondola at Aspen Mountain can be purchased online and scanned in with a phone QR code. Only members of the same family are allowed to ride the gondola together, and the outdoor eating at the top of the mountain was expanded.
The Aspen Ski Company said it also will institute numerous new measures this winter to keep skiers socially distanced and safe.
“Everything other than the skiing will be different,” said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications for Aspen Snowmass. “There’ll be some things that may make it more convenient and easier to get up the mountain, in addition to keeping your distance and things.”
Hotels revamped their procedures during the lockdown and introduced changes when they were allowed to have guests again.
Aspen Meadows Resort, on a sprawling property above the Roaring Fork River, began having its cleaning staff leave sanitizer on all surfaces in the rooms for at least 10 minutes before wiping, and cleaned bathroom amenities. Most everything now must be scheduled, including the pool, fitness center and room cleaning, to ensure social distancing.
Breakfast is to-go only and reservations are necessary at the resort’s Plato’s Restaurant. Masks are required, and there’s dirty and clean pen cups at the front desk.
“For those that love hospitality, it really was just another pivot to figure out how to operate the business,” Aspen Meadows general manager Jud Hawk said. “It’s certainly been one of the biggest challenges of my career.”
Restaurants in Colorado were allowed to serve at 50% capacity in late May.
Dodge installed a new ventilation system inside Bosq and, like many restaurants in town, has an enclosed outdoor seating area. Bosq does temperature checks at the door and sanitizing on all shared surfaces inside. The restaurant is building an enclosed area for outdoor dining for when it reopens for the winter season on Dec. 10.
“Winter brings on a whole other set of what — what’s around the corner, is it going to be great?” Dodge said. “We just don’t know.”