Ski areas in Southwest Colorado hastily shuttered operations Sunday after Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order banning operations from Sunday through March 22.
On Sunday, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed 30 new positive cases in Colorado, based on overnight test results. None of the cases was in La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, San Juan, San Miguel or Dolores counties. None of those counties yet has a confirmed case of COVID-19.
Sunday’s numbers bring the total number of positive cases to date in Colorado to 131.
Roseanne Pitcher, co-owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, and Dave Rathbun, general manager of Purgatory Resort, both scrambled to close their slopes. They both expressed dismay about the lack of communication between the governor’s office and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and ski areas concerning the closures.
“We’re compliant. We have closed down, but I’m a little upset about the lack of notice,” Pitcher said in a phone interview Sunday. “We had no notice; no one called us. We heard nothing until it was made public. I feel there is poor communication between government offices and ski areas, at least the smaller ski areas.”
On Saturday night, Wolf Creek was selling lift tickets and taking reservations for its ski school for Sunday, and if the governor’s office had better communication with the ski area, it would have been able to avoid selling those tickets and then refunding money back to customers, Pitcher said.
Rathbun said he received a telephone call from Butch Knowlton, La Plata County emergency manager, about noon Saturday, when Knowlton told Purgatory executives to be prepared for a call from the governor’s office, but he said the phone call never came.
“Text and messages kept coming at me with different information, but we never got the phone call from the governor’s office. Finally, I called Butch about 9:30 last night and asked him, ‘What the heck is going on.’ And he didn’t know either,” Rathbun said.
Late Saturday night, Rathbun said La Plata County and Purgatory Resort both separately confirmed that the closures ordered by Polis were from Sunday through Sunday, March 22.
“If we had not done the outreach on our own, I don’t think anyone was going to tell us about the executive order. I’m concerned that this doesn’t happen again. This is a rapidly changing situation, and if poor communication like this continues it will be problematic. It leaves a lot to be desired,” Rathbun said.
Rathbun said mid-March to mid-April typically brings in 10% to 15% of skiers for the season to Purgatory and the closure will hurt not only the ski area, but the 900 employees at the ski area, who are employed during peak season. He said the 900 employee peak included the upcoming week, which is heavy because it is spring break season.
At Wolf Creek Ski Area, 400 employees are idled by the closure. Employees at both Wolf Creek and Purgatory will not be paid while they are not at work, Pitcher and Rathbun said.
“We’re the largest employer in Mineral County. People are dependent on us for income,” she said.
Pitcher also noted that guests who would have been on the slopes Sunday were instead concentrated in restaurants and hotels in Pagosa Springs.
“This was confusing to our guests. They’re concentrated in Pagosa Springs and South Fork. We don’t have a lodge on the mountain, and now you have people concentrated in town in restaurants and hotels. I don’t understand how the health department thinks that’s more healthy than having people on the lifts and on the mountains,” Pitcher said.
Based on the current situation, Pitcher said, she plans to reopen Wolf Creek on March 23, unless further orders come extending the closure.
“We work all summer for the ski season, for about 150 to 160 days of operation. Being a winter-only operation, we’re dependent on this business as our only means of income,” she said.
Telluride Ski Area decided to close for the season with the governor’s executive order.
Nancy Clark, a spokeswoman with Telluride Ski Area, said the executive team was meeting Sunday on how to handle the shut down.
Clark said she’s heard the closure might be extended, given that COVID-19’s incubation period is 14 days.
In a news release announcing the closure of ski resorts, Polis said, “The challenges posed by COVID-19 are unique and place significant burdens on hospitals and medical personnel. We are aware of the great cost that mountain communities face if our downhill ski resorts close, even temporarily.
“These costs will be borne by local residents and businesses, and by the individuals and families who come to Colorado to enjoy our beautiful mountains and world-renowned skiing. But in the face of this pandemic emergency we cannot hesitate to protect public health and safety.”
Rathbun said Purgatory will reassess the situation in the upcoming week to determine if it will reopen.
Purgatory had a plan in place to mitigate the risks of COVID-19, and until the Polis-ordered shut down, Purgatory executives had planned to remain open.
“We had a clear plan to mitigate the risks to our guests and employees, and as long as there were no cases of the virus in La Plata County, we were planning to continue operating, unless that changed,” Rathbun said.
Ski areas are so diverse in Colorado, he said his personal opinion is that a “one-size-fits-all” plan for all the state’s ski areas is not needed.
“We’re very different from bigger ski areas that host far more visitors on the Front Range,” he said.
Pitcher concurred that different protective measures could have been taken at more remote ski areas in Southwest Colorado.
“We could have asked people to bring their lunches, and we could have closed down the restaurants and other public places,” she said.