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A Vail ski area employee in an empty lane between lines of skiers reminds skiers to keep their masks over their nose. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s resort communities are teetering on the edge of increased restrictions as a potential surge in COVID-19 cases from the busy holidays looms. But public health officials in eight tourism-dependent communities have not linked any outbreaks to ski areas. 

“It’s not the activity of skiing that is the risk but all the things that go along with it,” said Lindsey Mills, a spokeswoman for San Miguel County.

San Miguel County has seen an increase in visitors testing positive for COVID-19, but the county’s epidemiological team has not tracked transmission back to the slopes, lines or chairlifts at Telluride ski area. But post-ski socializing, that’s a problem. 

“When your guard is let down with alcohol that is where we are seeing spread,” Mills said.

That’s the refrain across the high country as public health directors brace for a possible surge in cases after the busy December holiday. Cases may be climbing — a New Year’s Eve party in Aspen boosted Pitkin County’s case count by nine, for example — but contact tracing tends to find transmission indoors. And controlling vacationers in private homes is virtually impossible, leaving health officials screaming themselves hoarse over safety protocols and imposing ever-restricting rules on businesses.

Tara Hardy, the director of Mineral and Hinsdale counties’ Silver Thread Public Health District, has been in regular contact with Wolf Creek ski area operators. Aside from a resort worker who tested positive early in the season from contact outside the ski area, she has not linked any positive cases back to the resort. 

“There are definitely pinch points to keep our eyes on where people are gathering, but the actual skiing itself … seems to pose a low risk of transmission,” Hardy said. 

Eagle County’s health department had no information on positive tests traced back to Vail or Beaver Creek, said county spokeswoman Kris Widlak. 

“A vast majority” of skiers at Vail Resorts’ five Colorado ski areas — Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Crested Butte Mountain Resort — are following safety guidelines, with employees “going above and beyond” to remind skiers about masks and distancing, spokeswoman Sara Olson said. 

“We’re grateful for their hard work, as well as for our guests’ willingness to take personal responsibility. We need everyone’s cooperation, awareness and attention so we can have what we all want – a successful ski and ride season,” she said in an email. “When our employees have reminded guests to pull up their masks, it has been great to see guests listening and complying.”

Vail Resorts has required reservations all season. While the capacity limits set for each ski area is not public information, the number of allowed skiers is based on available acreage and lift capacity. 

Ski areas struggle to open terrain in seasons like this one, when snow has been slow to arrive. That challenge has been amplified this pandemic season as paltry snowfall not only limits the amount of available ski acreage but also the number of skiers allowed on the slopes. 

Vail ski area divides skiers into groups at chairlifts, to help maintain social distancing. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)

Winter Park has been exceptionally busy this season and last month installed a mandatory reservation system for all skiers. As of the middle of January, the resort had no open reservations for weekends through March. But a resort spokeswoman said cancellations have left open slots every day. 

“So far, there hasn’t been a day when a pass holder who wanted to ski or ride couldn’t do so,” Winter Park’s Jen Miller said.

With only 1,200 acres open, Grand County’s Winter Park ski area is expanding lift-line mazes and indoor restrictions to keep skiers apart. Brene Belew-LaDue, who has directed Grand County Public Health for 17 years, has not seen any cases from the busy ski hill. She agrees that skiing “is a low-risk activity.” 

When her team has tracked positive cases involving Winter Park or Granby Ranch ski area employees, it was connected to living arrangements and socializing, not the workplace, she said. That aligns with cases she has tracked from the county’s restaurants as well. 

“I believe that the resort eliminated most of the pinch points,” said Belew-LaDue, who last month announced she was resigning on Jan. 15, citing conflicts with the county’s board of commissioners. “They also continue to do quality improvement as they find issues. Winter Park and Granby Ranch have been wonderful collaborators in the process.”

There have been a couple of positive tests among people visiting Crested Butte Mountain Resort, but Gunnison County’s health and human services director Joni Reynolds said she has seen no evidence of transmission at the resort. 

“Skiing is important for health — physical, emotional and psychological — and the risk of skiing itself is a very low risk of COVID transmission,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds, like most health directors near ski resorts, is in regular contact with resort managers. She said managers at Crested Butte Mountain Resort have identified areas where risk of transmission is elevated, like in lift lines and dining areas, and deployed a variety of strategies to limit spread, including mandating masks, hand-washing, capacity limits, distancing, ventilation improvements and consistent cleaning of public areas.

“I am confident they are addressing the risks effectively,” she said. (Gunnison County is one of four Colorado counties currently ranked below the state’s level orange restrictions.)

Summit County, which has four ski areas that account for more than a quarter of all skier visits in Colorado, also has not seen spread among skiers at resorts. 

“We do have cases and spread among employees, but that is typically when they are not following company protocol or because of social activity outside work,” Summit County health department spokeswoman Nicole Valentine said.

Telluride ski area, like many resorts, has grouped employees into pods who spend the entire season working together. Much like similar programs in schools, the pod system limits widespread exposure to contagion if a worker falls ill. And the county has seen only two workers test positive this season. 

Since the week before Christmas, when the ski season really ramps up in Telluride, San Miguel County has logged an increase in the number of vacationers testing positive. Last Friday, for example, nine of the 18 positive tests recorded by the county were non-residents. That’s surprising, considering the county warns visitors who test positive they could be reported to state health officials who can prevent them from boarding commercial flights. But that only happens “on the rare occasion where we fear noncompliance with quarantine and isolation guidelines,” said Mills, the county spokeswoman. Contact tracing continues to point to lodging and social situations, not the ski area, she said.  

San Miguel County last week cleared restaurants in Telluride and Mountain Village for indoor dining after closing at the end of November. But in Pitkin County, where restaurants remained open with tables only for single families through December, the county board of health announced more severe restrictions starting Sunday that include no indoor dining. 

Pitkin County, with its four ski areas, was busy over the holidays, even with a requirement that all overnight visitors complete a travel affidavit with proof of a negative COVID-19 test before arriving.  

And even though potential cases from the Christmas and New Year’s weeks have not been tallied, the incidence rate for the county is the highest in Colorado. This week the rate of COVID-19 in the county hovered near 3,000, which means somewhere close to 1 in 35 residents is currently infected with the virus. Take out the next highest counties where outbreaks in prisons are spiking results and the average incidence rate — or cases per 100,000 people — is around 500. 

The seven-member board of health this week unanimously agreed to move into red-level restrictions that shut down indoor dining and limit lodges to 50% capacity. But the county did not require Aspen Skiing Co. to install a reservation system. The operator of four ski areas in the county did commit to better mask and social distancing enforcement.

The board of health on Monday discussed how to give enforcement more teeth. Could violators of COVID rules be charged with reckless endangerment, one board member asked. Could public health officials work like the county’s open space rangers to make caterers, bartenders, DJs, valets and party planners more accountable for violations of rules around private gatherings, another wondered.

Aspen Skiing spokesman Jeff Hanle said most skiers comply with the rules about masks and distancing and the company has focused on education over strict enforcement. He talked with managers at the four ski areas and they did not relay any incidents involving skiers refusing to comply. 

“We have had people say ‘Well, I’m not from Colorado so I don’t have to wear a mask’ and we just share with them that the rule is for people who are not just from here but are here,” Hanle said. 

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

Pitkin County spokeswoman Tracy Trulove said the resort operator has been nimble in working with the county on education efforts, cajoling visitors into following the so-called five commitments. (Those are distancing, hand-washing, masks, staying home when ill and testing and self-reporting when experiencing symptoms.) 

“The numbers we are seeing are not pointing to the resorts,” Trulove said. “We are still looking at the human behavior element, trying to convey the importance of the five commitments. If you are following those, you are taking the precautions required to protect yourself and others.”

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,...