TELLURIDE, Colorado – The day after Thanksgiving, Dr. Jana Eller and Dr. Shiraz Naqvi next to an outdoor fire pit at the base of Telluride ski area and took a short break from skiing.
The two Houston doctors had driven more than 18 hours to get here for the weekend vacation and they lived (and prepared meals) in a rented house. They were traveling with another couple and their children, colleagues they “gushed” with in Houston.
“We received a COVID test before we left and will have another when we return,” Naqvi said.
Skiing itself doesn’t feel much different during the pandemic, Eller said, but “the après-ski scene is just gone.”
In March, at the start of the pandemic, Colorado Governor Jared Polis issued an executive order calling for the state’s ski resorts to close in response to COVID-19, which hit the state’s ski towns early and hard. Now that the resorts enter their busy season, the state has made efforts to avoid blanket closings, even though cases of COVID-19 are at their highest ever level.
How to stay open amid the pandemic is a problem that resorts in the United States are facing. Mandatory face covers have become the norm, but other COVID mitigation measures vary by location. Vermont ski resorts are asking skiers to confirm they will comply with interstate travel rules when purchasing a lift ticket during the pandemic. In Colorado’s Pitkin County (home of Aspen), visitors must certify that they have a negative COVID test result within 72 hours of travel or commitment to quarantine for 14 days after arrival or until they receive a negative test result.
Telluride is an internationally renowned travel destination that seeks to work safely while protecting the region’s 8,000 or so permanent residents. The economy is in a remote southwestern part of Colorado and is dependent on tourism. On the busiest days, the resort receives up to 6,500 visitors.
On November 25, San Miguel County, which also includes Telluride, closed its bars and limited its restaurants to takeout and alfresco dining as COVID case numbers skyrocketed and the positivity rate hit 4.6%. Signs posted throughout the resort remind visitors of the “Five Commitments to Containment”: wear a mask, maintain 6 feet physical distance, minimize group size, wash your hands frequently, and be puffed up when you are feel sick, stay home and test.
How bad would things have to get to shut down the resort? It’s hard to tell, said Grace Franklin, the county public health director. People will do what they want, she said.
“If we close the ski area, how many people will drive into the hinterland and injure themselves or trigger avalanches if the effects are greater? It’s a damn situation if you do it, damn it if you don’t, ”Franklin said.
Instead, Franklin said, the question is, “How do we create safer, technical events so that people have a point of sale, but do we minimize as much risk as possible?”
Skiing itself carries relatively little risk, said Kate Langwig, an epidemiologist at Virginia Tech. “You are outside with a lot of airflow, you have something strapped to your feet so you are not in very close contact with other people, and most of the time you take the lift with people in your group. ”
Collecting at the lodge or bar is by far the greatest COVID risk associated with skiing, said Langwig, who grew up in northern New York. “With my family, one of the things you do after a day of skiing is hooking up with friends and have a beer at the lodge,” and that social aspect of skiing is too risky right now, she said.
To deter tourists and local residents from the gathering, local governments, medical facilities and the ski resort released a co-signed letter in November urging people to cancel any plans to hang out with people outside their immediate household and only people on the holidays out to celebrate their own household. To keep the resort open everyone must do their part, said Lindsey Mills, San Miguel County’s COVID public information advisor.
“We’re not telling anyone not to come, at least not yet,” said Todd Brown, Telluride mayor. But local officials are sending a strong message to everyone in the area – “Chill out. Don’t have a big party with five families. “
Officials aren’t just concerned about coronavirus transmission. They are also concerned about the congestion in their medical facilities. There is an emergency center in San Miguel County, but no hospital. His medical center had a 22% staff shortage at the end of November, mainly because so many staff are in quarantine. Hospitals in nearby Mesa County reached intensive care capacity last month, and other hospitals in the area are also pinched.
“We can’t have a situation where people break their legs on the slopes and we can’t take care of them,” Franklin said.
The resort has taken steps to facilitate physical distancing between visitors. Telluride doesn’t require reservations, but lift tickets must be purchased in advance, and the resort may restrict ticket sales if necessary, said Jeff Proteau, vice president of operations and planning at Telluride Ski Resort. Gondolas run with the windows open and each charge is restricted to members of the same household.
To reduce contact in and around the elevators, workers created “ghost lines” with empty space to keep groups 6 feet apart while they wait in elevator lines. People from the same household can stand in line and ride the two- to four-person elevators side by side, Proteau said, but if they’re riding an elevator with someone from a different household, guests are asked to leave a free space between them.
Langwig was a ski instructor for children for many years and was worried about the ski school. “You interact pretty closely with the kids,” she said, noting that runny noses are common. “You spend a lot of time pooling kids and getting them to and from the bathroom.” This could be especially difficult when indoor spaces are closed, she said. “Hot chocolate breaks are one of the ways kids get through the day, and it’s no longer safe.”
In anticipation of visitors who need to take breaks to warm up, the resort has installed six temporary structures around the mountain with insulated ceilings and heated panels. When the pages are rolled up they are considered outside areas, Proteau said, but they can be closed in a tight space with limited occupancy if needed, especially on a stormy day.
The risk for most employees on the mountain should be relatively low, Langwig said, at least at work. “The lift attendants are outside most of the time and wear thick gloves and a mask. Compared to someone who works in a restaurant, the risk is pretty low. “
Employees are typically deployed in small groups that can be quarantined if necessary without wiping out an entire department, Proteau said. There is also contact tracking for resort staff.
Arizona-born Joey Rague moved to Telluride last year and works as a ski valet on the mountain. He said there is a huge incentive among the staff to keep the resort open. Since there is hardly any affordable housing in Telluride, “we all battle seasonally to be able to pay rent.”
So far most of the visitors have been respectful and conscientious of the rules.
“It seems like people understand that if we want to stay open, we have to come together,” he said.