SUMMIT COUNTY — The Mountain View Sports Rental shop sits right across the road from Keystone Ski Resort, and for 28 years owner Scot Jardon has relied on the tourist bustle to sustain himself and the group of employees he refers to as his family.
But on Thursday — a classic Colorado blue-bird day with springlike skiing conditions — the rental shop was eerily silent. The night before, Gov. Jared Polis recommended that people 60 and older or those with underlying health issues avoid the high country, a precaution for the novel coronavirus spreading rapidly throughout the state. Two days later, the region’s largest resort owners — Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company — announced they were shuttering mountains for at least a week, if not longer.
“The reality is setting in,” Jardon said. “People are hunkering down and hiding.”
As he spoke about the economic implications of the global outbreak for his business, an employee handed the owner an envelope.
“Another cancellation,” Jardon said with a sigh.
Colorado’s high country — an international destination for those seeking alpine thrills, cool mountain air and postcard-level views of snowy peaks — braced for a major disruption to its tourist-centric economy as people cancel flights, hotels, ski rentals and spring break outings in light of the COVID-19 virus. Some schools have been canceled, while major conferences and international ski competitions have been dropped as mountain counties move to ban large-scale gatherings to limit community spread.
And Saturday evening, Polis ordered all downhill skiing operations shuttered for a week.
“The economic impact is going to be extreme,” said Mary Ann Morrison, administrator for the Eagle Chamber of Commerce.
Hoping for spring break
In Dillon, the community recently said goodbye to the ice castles, the towering sculptures in the center of town that bring visitors from all over.
In a normal year, the ice castle rush rolls right into spring break season, when college students and families come up for extended ski vacations. But now that’s all up in the thin air.
“If spring break kids don’t show, we’ll definitely feel it,” said Mike Stys, manager of the Dos Locos restaurant near Keystone.
John Jordan, owner of Pug Ryan’s Brewery in Dillon, said his staff is trying to remain light and upbeat concerning the coronavirus, but beneath the laughs lies an underlying seriousness. He worries about his staff, people who rely on tips to make ends meet.
“If I’m unable to work, I hope my landlord takes pity on me,” said Miranda Simmons, a bartender and manager at the brewery.
If tourists were to stay away from Dillon, the impact would ripple throughout the community, said Kerstin Anderson, spokeswoman and director of economic development for the town. She said she was disappointed when Polis announced that mountain communities would be unable to handle medical needs in light of the virus.
“I have tremendous faith in our health organizations,” Anderson said.
Minimizing social contact in mountain communities
Mountain towns are bracing for even more social upheaval in the coming days.
Eagle and Pitkin counties — home to international ski destinations such as Aspen and Vail — have been two of the hardest hit by the outbreak, with 35 people testing positive for the respiratory illness between them as of Sunday afternoon. Health officials declared that Eagle County and the Aspen area had seen community transmission — meaning it can’t trace positive cases back to their source.
On Sunday, state health officials strongly advised anyone who lives in or has visited Eagle, Summit, Pitkin or Gunnison counties in the last week to minimize social contact, whether or not they are experiencing symptoms.
Pitkin, Garfield and Eagle counties earlier in the week announced they are banning large gatherings and events with more than 50 people. The Aspen School District on Friday canceled classes for all students next week — adding to spring break scheduled for the week after — as it attempts to mitigate transmission.
“We’re taking really aggressive and proactive responses to social distancing,” Karen Koenemann, director of Pitkin County Public Health, said on a Friday afternoon conference call.
That means major events — and major dollars — will not be coming to the area in the near future.
“The word I would use is ‘uncertainty,’ ” said Chris Romer, president and CEO of the Vail Valley Partnership, Eagle County’s regional chamber of commerce. “People just don’t know. They don’t know what it means for the community, for the visitor impact, what it means from a cash-flow standpoint.”
Jonathan Reap, spokesman for Vail’s Four Seasons Resort, said hotels around the region — including his — have taken a hit as the coronavirus spread. The Four Seasons and other hotels are also trying to figure out what to do with their seasonal workforce, many of whom come from other countries. And the future for some workers is murkier as airlines and governments restrict travel to and from certain countries.
“It’s been recommended that we possibly send these kids home,” Reap said, noting this would be about a month earlier than usual. “We’re still in the process of figuring that out, but it could be sooner rather than later.”
Romer said he and his team are encouraging businesses to simply be human when it comes to their visitors and staff. That means lenient policies on cancellations and date-change options for guests, as well as time off for sick employees.
“If this goes on for a while, the economic impact will be likely significant and it will be our at-risk populations that feel it the most,” he said.
Hitting the slopes — despite it all
In at least one respect, mountain towns are no different now than everywhere else in the world: Coronavirus talk is simply everywhere. It’s on the benches outside Arapahoe Basin’s lodge, a 20-something talking on the phone about transmission and the risks of sitting in the car with friends for hours on end.
It’s in Frisco coffee shops, where business people talk stock prices and new timelines for shipments. It’s behind hotel front desks, large bottles of sanitizer on full display, begging to be pumped.
But for many Coloradans hoping to take advantage of the high country’s steep slopes and outdoor adventures, a simple global viral outbreak wasn’t going to stop them.
Jane and Jim Florea sat in the back of their pickup truck Thursday in the Loveland Ski Area parking lot, sipping beers and taking in the sunshine like it was any other day.
“We’re making turns and having a good time!” said Jim Florea, 65. Despite his age, Florea said he couldn’t live his life in a paranoid state.
“Plus, it’s not like we’re licking the chairlifts,” Jane Florea, 59, said with a laugh.
Ted Gauthier flew in from Louisiana for a full weekend of skiing at Arapahoe Basin, and he wasn’t about to sit inside and do a puzzle.
“I’m not that worried,” the 56-year-old said as he rested on a bench.
By Sunday, Gauthier, the Floreas and other skiers didn’t have a choice.