Silverton Mountain came close to being Colorado’s only operating ski area with plans to reopen Tuesday, but its owners ultimately decided it was not worth the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
On Saturday, Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order that required all Colorado ski resorts to close after an uptick in confirmed cases of the virus, mostly around heavily populated ski areas like Aspen, Vail and Beaver Creek.
But owners Jen and Aaron Brill believed the order applied only to traditional ski resorts, not Silverton Mountain, a small, no-frills operation that has no resort accommodations like a restaurant, lodge or hotel.
For the unfamiliar, Silverton Mountain offers some of the most extreme terrain in the state, with a single chairlift that brings only the most advanced skiers to an elevation of 12,300 feet.
From there, skiers (sometimes with a guide, depending on the season and conditions), can backcountry hike up to 13,487 feet – considered the highest and steepest ski area in North America – to traverse around 1,800 acres of the San Juan Mountains.
Silverton Mountain also offers heli-skiing.
The Brills did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. But in a Facebook post on Tuesday, the owners said they decided to open Sunday.
“There is a big difference between Vail Resort with 15,000 people a day and Silverton,” the post reads. Silverton Mountain typically draws anywhere from 200 to 250 people a day.
Silverton Mountain was closed Monday. But, believing the risk of the virus’ spread to be low, Silverton Mountain made plans to reopen its chairlift again Tuesday. As added measures, the base tent and bus would be shut down, and access would be limited to season pass holders so as not to overcrowd the mountain.
The Brills posted that they consulted the Governor’s Office, which they say agreed with their interpretation of the order.
Conor Cahill, press secretary for the Governor’s Office, said Silverton Mountain operates under a different type of permit than most ski resorts, and therefore, could resume operations.
“We’ve spoken to them and they are now recognizing that it is not in the best interest of their community to operate,” Cahill said.
By the end of Monday, and after President Donald Trump’s announcement calling for stricter guidelines to slow the coronavirus outbreak, the Brills decided to close for the season.
“We have decided that the best decision is to follow suit and close … so that hopefully the communities of Colorado can avoid an upcoming mandatory quarantine,” the post reads.
The closure of Colorado’s ski areas is expected to have a devastating impact on the state’s economy, but the effects may be more acute in the small town of Silverton, which is more susceptible to economic fluctuations.
In winter, Silverton Mountain is by far the town’s largest economic engine, said DeAnne Gallegos, director of Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce. And, it’s the biggest employer with about 40 staff members.
As a result, restaurants and lodges in the small town – about 650 residents – rely on Silverton Mountain’s draw to stay open, Gallegos said.
“The amount of backcountry skiers it brings in definitely supplements our restaurants and lodgers through the winter season,” she said.
In recent years, the town of Silverton has tried to diversify its winter economy, holding popular events like skijoring, dogsledding races and music events. More people are cross-country skiing and snowmobiling, too, she said.
Yet amid the coronavirus outbreak, some of Silverton’s handful of restaurants and lodges have closed, while others have decided to offer take-out or curbside delivery as ordered by Polis on Monday.
“Our businesses are really trying to be resilient in these turbulent times,” Gallegos said.
Silverton residents are well accustomed to stocking up for long bouts without access to the outside world, especially in winter when it’s not uncommon for Coal Bank, Molas and Red Mountain passes – the only access to the town – to be closed.
“We tend to normally have enough supplies for us to survive weeks at a time,” Gallegos said. “But because we live in a tiny little hamlet, we all have constant contact, so we’re putting certain things in place, especially to take care of elderly.”