ESTES PARK — This tourist village at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park has survived floods, recessions, government shutdowns and more. But starting at high noon today, Estes Park’s economy will face what might be its biggest challenge ever.
In a move hoped to stem the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, all overnight accommodations in the Estes Valley — hotels, motels and vacation rentals — must shut down through April 17, as ordered Saturday by the town and the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment. The only exceptions will be for local workers, long-term residents of short-term facilities and those who are ill or quarantined. Affected are businesses ranging from the iconic Stanley Hotel to modest motels and vacation homes rented out by their owners.
The proclamation also ordered that “there shall be no new bookings or reservations at short-term lodging during the pendency of this order. Furthermore, current reservations through April 17, 2020, shall be canceled.”
The sprawling YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, located outside town limits, on March 16 announced it was closing until at least April 6, with another decision to be made as that date approaches.
“This is an incredibly difficult decision made with the health of the people in our community in mind — our No. 1 priority,” Town Administrator Travis Machalek said in a statement Sunday. “We hope that the sooner we take these measures, the sooner we can celebrate the reopening of our businesses.”
Although there was opposition to the drastic move among some town trustees and business owners, Machalek issued the proclamation Saturday after the national park was officially closed. On Friday evening, the chief of staff at Estes Park Health urged officials to limit the number of tourists in town, and one determined business owner put on the pressure.
Greg Rosener and his wife, Cydney Springer, co-own SkyRun Estes Park, a reservation system for 107 overnight units, mostly vacation homes and condominiums that largely are owned by people who “eventually want to live here, to retire, and want some way to offset some of their expenses,” Rosener said. “They’re mostly moms and pops.”
SkyRun Estes Park is the second-largest part of a Boulder-based system that also manages privately owned vacation properties in Steamboat Springs, Vail, Aspen, Dillon, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Breckenridge and Winter Park, as well as in Canada, Mexico, Lake Tahoe and Park City, Utah. The Estes Park unit generated $5 million in revenue last year, Rosener said.
After being deluged by news of the spread of COVID-19, Rosener said, “I woke up in the middle of the night, going, ‘Oh, my gosh! I’ve got 40-some hot tubs — and what goes on in hot tubs can’t be a good thing. I have 18 full-time employees, two of whom clean those things. I can’t risk those people. I’d feel horrible” if they caught the virus.
“Then I went to the grocery store and saw how everything was stripped out. I’d have 200-some guests with no toilet paper, no produce. And what happens if they get sick? So I decided I’ve got to shut this down.”
Knowing the impact would be huge, Rosener and Springer on March 16 started canceling reservations for existing guests, refunding 100% of $50,000 worth of deposits.
When I talked to my owners, I said I’ve got to protect my people,” Rosener said. “If it buries me, it buries me.”
But the phone calls and emails kept coming.
“We still had people calling and begging to come to Estes Park,” he said. “They’re not stopping. And then I’m looking at what these guests would do, coming in from other places. And other places were staying open; I had my housekeepers come to me and say, ‘They’re not shutting down, Greg. What do we do?’ My competitors were renting the hell out of things.
“I think this is where private business loses its integrity with the rest of the community,” he said. “That’s where government has to step in and say, ‘No, we’re not going to let you charge $40 for a roll of toilet paper.’”
Rosener said he began to realize that what needed to be done went far beyond his own properties.
The average age of full-time Estes Park residents is 58, he said, and seniors are the most vulnerable to contracting the virus. Even though most people who contract COVID-19 do not become seriously ill and young workers are far less susceptible to it, he said people with mild symptoms could place other, more vulnerable members of the public at high risk.
“Our three precincts here in the Estes Valley have the oldest per capita age group of any in the state of Colorado,” Rosener said. “We’ve got a great hospital here with great docs, but we can’t handle all those people getting sick.
“I’ve lived here for over 50 years, and I’m very involved civically,” he said. “I realized I’ve got to do my job not only to protect my employees but also the rest of the people in Estes. Then I started making phone calls, but there was real reticence” among other owners of accommodations, retailers and town trustees — including Mayor Todd Jirsa.
“When I couldn’t get the mayor to (get) back me, I said, ‘I didn’t want to do this, but you’re going to make me publish the letter I sent to my owners which outlines why we’re doing this.’ He said, ‘Great, Greg, that’s what transparency’s about.’ So I sent the letter to all the county commissioners.”
The pressure mounted on Thursday when the news became public that a University of Colorado Boulder student who had tested positive for the virus was in self-quarantine in Estes Park. That prompted Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent Darla Sidles to reach out to the town and Visit Estes Park to shut down tourism. She had closed visitor centers and eliminated entry fees earlier in the week, but kept the gates open until early Friday because of a shortage of plow drivers to deal with a fresh foot of snow.
That’s when Jirsa wrote to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking him to close the park in order to limit the number of visitors coming through town. He sent copies of his request to Sidles, Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse.
The park officially closed at 7 p.m. Friday, and a news release was sent out an hour later.
“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners at Rocky Mountain National Park is ourNo. 1 priority,” the release stated. “The National Park Service is working with the federal, state, and local authorities to closely monitor the novel coronavirus situation. We will notify the public when we resume full operations and provide updates on our website and social media channels.”
The final straw — Machalek’s proclamation ordering the closure of overnight accommodations at noon today — came Saturday.
“I know it was a really hard decision for Travis,” Rosener said. He’s looking at a bigger picture than just me. He’s looking at town government services, sales tax revenue, budgets.”
On Saturday, while driving up Elkhorn Avenue, the town’s main street lined with gift stores, ice cream and taffy shops, restaurants and bars, Rosener noted that barely half were open. John Cullen, owner of the Stanley Hotel, agreed.