TELLURIDE – A late-winter squall dumps a foot of fresh powder on the Telluride ski area just in time for spring break tourists.
Ski and snowboard gear and clothing adorn shop windows. Bicycles are parked on clean town sidewalks, ready for rent and a ride through town. Snow-capped mountains reach toward an overcast sky.
It’s a picture of a Colorado resort town.
But there is an eerie quiet. Mountain Village’s plaza – full of restaurants, bars and outdoor shops – is empty, lifeless.
The ski lifts and gondola above town are not moving, and there’s not a soul in sight on a Saturday afternoon.
Rows of outdoor chairs and tables – umbrellas folded – are vacant, and windblown snow piles up on them. Indoors, chairs are stacked beside tableclothed tables set with fine dishware, but there are no diners.
Ominous signs on locked shops read “United We Stand, Stay Home and Stay Safe” and “Keep Calm, Wash Your Hands,” a signal something is seriously amiss.
It’s all part of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic caused by the easily spread coronavirus.
It triggered the first-ever forced closure of all Colorado ski areas by Gov. Jared Polis, who compared the virus to a “ghost,” because it’s difficult to track. By the time test results come back, the disease, COVID-19, has had several days to infect more people.
Soon after the resorts closed, state orders limited restaurants to take-out and delivery orders. Then Polis ordered gatherings be limited to 10 people, each person socially distanced 6 feet apart.
The new coronavirus respiratory disease is easily spread by touch and through the air from speaking, sneezing and coughing. It lingers on surfaces for days, even on ski lift chairs.
To help slow the spread of the disease, San Miguel County Health Department went a step further with social distancing, becoming on March 20 the first Colorado county to implement mandatory shelter-in-place rules for all residents. Other counties and cities soon followed. This week, the governor issued a stay-at-home order for all of the state’s residents.
The combination of restrictions and closures turned the bustling resort towns of Telluride and Mountain Village into apparent ghost towns overnight, slamming closed the vibrant ski economy and shocking the community.
Soon after the order in San Miguel County, the town of Rico, on the other side of Lizard Head Pass in Dolores County, implemented shelter-in-place rules for residents, with exceptions for essential errands and exercise.
‘We all have to do our part’A Journal reporter and Durango Herald photographer ventured to Telluride and Rico last week to see how locals and businesses have been affected as they shelter in place.
“It’s like getting kicked in the stomach by a burro. We’re stunned by the impact this has on our economy,” said Telluride resident Houston Morrow. “It’s made me realize how the world can be crippled so quickly with a biological disease.”
People and businesses will lose at least three to four months of income, three to four months of their savings, Morrow said.
Spring skiing provides a reliable boost for the Telluride economy, especially with good snow. Much of that commerce dried up overnight.
In March and April 2018, the combined taxable retail sales of Telluride and Mountain Village was $37 million, according to data compiled by The Colorado Sun. In March and April 2019, the combined retail sales of Telluride and Mountain Village was $46.5 million.
The shelter-in-place rules allow people to go out for essential supplies like groceries and medicine, and to exercise or assist a family member.
San Miguel Sheriff Bill Masters, standing last Saturday in front of the county courthouse in downtown Telluride, is there to enforce the rules.
Compliance has been good, he said. He hasn’t issued tickets or warnings.
“We are soliciting cooperation because we do not want people to spread the disease or catch the disease. We all have to do our part,” he said. “We’ve had our share of disasters like wildfires and avalanches, but this is a first.”
San Miguel County has one reported COVID-19 case, and the man and his family are self-isolating for 14 days.
Telluride is a year-round outdoor recreation mecca, and it seems everyone is physically fit and active.
“There are a lot of athletes in this town, and they tend to go stir-crazy if cooped up inside,” Masters said.
But having all your friends “pile into a Suburban to go backcountry skiing” defeats the purpose of social distancing, he said.
“Use your head and live with the spirit of (the restrictions). Most people are,” he said. “There are a few more people out than I’d like to see.”
All San Miguel County residents are receiving free COVID-19 blood testing – donated by a local couple Mei Mei Hu and Lou Reese. The tests will determine the infection rate, and data from follow-up tests will go to scientists working on a vaccine.
A scattering of people walked the streets, some couples, some with dogs. At a pharmacy, customers waited in line on a sidewalk marked off to keep people 6 feet apart.
An uphill climb for skiersAlthough Telluride Ski Resort is closed, die-hard skiers have another option if they’re willing to sweat.
After the end of each season, the Telluride Ski Resort allows skiers to hike or ski up the slope for some downhill runs at their own risk.
About 50 locals climb up each day, Telluride resident Steve Pruett said at the end of a run.
Specialized removable skins on the bottom of their skis allow for the ascent, then it’s all downhill.
“‘Earn your turns’ as the saying goes, no more laps of 16 runs per day using the lifts,” Pruett says. “There is plenty of untracked snow now.”
Locals are grateful for the option to skin up, said another skier. But all the avalanche precautions, including a beacon, probe and smart mountain travel, are necessary because there is no avalanche control after the ski area closes.
Masters worries inexperienced backcountry skiers will venture into avalanche-prone mountain areas.
“We are a small county and don’t have the staff for a lot of search and rescue, so please use caution,” he said. “Stay away from avalanche areas. The inexperienced need to be on flatter ground. Do not all travel in the same vehicle together or have dinner parties later.”
What about the economics?The loss of business and jobs has been severe.
Sky Brueske was laid off from his three bartending jobs in town because of the restaurant closures and restrictions.
“Luckily, I have some savings. I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” he said. “Normally, we would be slammed right now with the spring break celebration. Now, it’s a ghost town.”
Social distancing has been hard for the tight-knit town, Brueske said.
“It’s tough that we can’t interact and relate to the problem like we usually do,” he said. “That camaraderie is good, whereas pure isolation is detrimental to our mental health.”
The shutdown came a few weeks before the usual off-season slowdown, but it still hurts.
At Brown Dog Pizza, business is down about 80%, said manager Mike Courter. The downsized staff is cooking pizzas for takeout and delivery.
“It’s pretty devastating, but we’re getting more customers in each day as they discover we are still open,” he said. “Normally, this time of year, the restaurant is full, and there is a waitlist in the evening. It’s tough.”
Barista Anna Mills was laid off when the Ghost Town Grocer coffee shop cut back staff after the ski resort closed. The owner is continuing to pay unemployed staff to help out.
“I’m very grateful for that,” she said.
Mills is adjusting to the shelter-in-place rules but understands their role in slowing down COVID-19.
“The social distancing can be a little challenging in tight spaces of restaurants and coffee shops. It takes some creative adjustments,” she said.
At the Bottle Works liquor store, business has been down without all the skiers, but it’s holding on, said employee Brandon Williamson.
“We’re pushing some reasonable numbers,” he said. “It seems like every fifth customer is stocking up with a $100 sale. Everyone is forced to entertain themselves at home now, so stocking your bar is just as important as toilet paper!”
Local reactions varyWhile many saw the need for state and local restrictions, others felt they were extreme.
“You guys in the media pumped it up more than needed,” said one man who did not give his name. “It’s been blown out of proportion. They took down the entire local economy, and (the virus) is not hitting us.”
Others said less drastic restrictions could have saved jobs and had less impact on the economy.
“It’s a bit too authoritarian for me, seems extreme for how many cases we have,” Williamson said.
Keeping tourists out to keep out the virus, and allowing locals to work and ski would have been a better compromise, he said.
“It’s not overkill if we come out safe,” said Tammy of Mountain Village, who did not give her last name. “The testing will provide valuable data. I’m taking the time to reset and keeping active with yoga and cross-country skiing.”
Isolation isn’t as new to RicoMeanwhile, in tiny Rico, the shelter-in-place order did not appear to have a huge impact.
“We already do that,” joked Tom Rowles, who works in snow removal and logging. “I’m kind of a hermit anyway. It’s kind of strange the way it worked out: We all moved out here into the mountains to get away from civilization and something like this, then we’re the first ones to get quarantined.”
Employees at the Mountain Top Fuel convenience store said locals were grateful they are open.
“We’re staying stocked and doing a lot of sanitizing,” said Cori Marvin. “We’re used to being sequestered here. The challenge for me is home-schooling the kids. They think if we’re home it’s time to play.”
People are helping one another, putting up messages on bulletin boards offering to help. Others are checking in on the elderly, said co-worker Nita Bedwell.
Rico locals said the sad part is they can’t socialize much, have a drink and play pool at the Enterprise Bar, which is now limited to serving to-go orders.
Mills said the vast backcountry around Rico makes social distancing a cinch, and many people are out cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Local real estate agent Frank Strachan said the real estate market stalled because of the pandemic.
“I lost two deals, but I’m optimistic it will rebound,” he said. “Three weeks ago, I had three full-price offers, but buyers are backing off now to see what happens.”
Lynn Reafsnyder, who visited Mountain Top Fuel on March 21, said he’s practicing Zen Buddhism.
“It helps me grow and deal with change,” he said. “I got this charcoal grill for cooking in case all the power goes out.”
This article was republished March 30 to correctly report that the masked statue was photographed in Telluride.