Skiers are hitting the slopes in Southwest Colorado, looking for some exercise and a short escape from the whirlwind of the COVID-19 pandemic and polarized politics, but even so, a sense of normalcy is hard to come by these days.
“It’s very different coming to a ski resort this year,” said Dave Rathbun, general manager of Purgatory Resort. “It’s just not the same.”
Colorado ski resorts were among the first casualities of the COVID-19 pandemic after Gov. Jared Polis abruptly shut them down on the night of March 14, effectively canceling the rest of the 2019-20 season.
At the time, some of Colorado’s largest mountain communities – such as Chaffee, Eagle, Gunnison and Pitkin counties – had some of the highest COVID-19 rates in the country as tourists from all over the world mixed with local residents.
But over the summer, many ski resorts, like Purgatory, got to perform a sort of test run to figure out how exactly to operate while at the same time navigating the many new COVID-19 protocols aimed at protecting public health.
While there have certainly been some hiccups to start the 2020-21 ski season, it seems the day-to-day operations at Purgatory Resort and Wolf Creek Ski Area are finding a balance, according to resort officials.
As throughout the pandemic, the three main public health tenets – social distancing, wearing a mask and reducing contact with people from other households – are the standards applied to ski areas this winter.
At Purgatory, Rathbun said the biggest obstacle has been enforcing the mask ordinance: Some people are upset if the resort doesn’t kick out everyone not wearing a mask, and other people are upset if they are told to wear one.
“It really has been an interesting study in human behavior to see and hear everyone’s expectations,” he said.
During the first week Purgatory opened, the people who showed up without masks were taken out of lift lines and instructed to either buy a mask or pick up a free one available at the resort.
“You cannot be here if you don’t have a mask,” Rathbun said.
These days, Rathbun said just about everyone on the mountain has a mask. But now, the issue is making sure people are wearing them properly, and it’s a tall ask for employees to monitor hundreds of guests.
“It can be frustrating and it can be exhausting trying to meet the expectation that every moment everyone is going to follow the rules perfectly,” he said.
Purgatory doesn’t offer cash refunds, but if a guest shows up and is uncomfortable, he or she can receive a credit. Rathbun said it would be difficult to parse out among the credits issued this year which were because of COVID-19.
As far as those who don’t want to wear a mask, education works, Rathbun said. Purgatory has had to ask only one family that was staying in the resort’s lodging to leave after they completely refused to wear a face covering.
The situation is much the same over at Wolf Creek Ski Area.
The ski area’s owner, Davey Pitcher, said there was only one serious altercation with a man who did not want to wear a mask, but it should be noted, he was drunk, so that’s likely why the situation escalated.
“We have very few people who seem to be resisting it,” he said. “We’re not pushing an agenda. We’re just trying to provide a comfortable level of compliance to the requests of the state health department.”
About 20 to 25 people have asked for refunds after arriving at the ski area and deciding they felt unsafe, Pitcher said.
“It’s recreation, and you choose to recreate or not,” he said.
This season, both ski areas reduced the amount of guests per day to better handle COVID-19 regulations.
At Wolf Creek Ski Area, on a normal year, a busy day could see up to 6,500 guests. But this winter, the cap is set at 5,000 guests.
Skiers can choose to ride a lift alone, but for the most part, Pitcher said people wear their face covering, pair up and get on a lift.
Purgatory’s maximum capacity changes daily, based on the number of lifts running, Rathbun said. Last week, after a storm dropped fresh powder on the mountain, a total of 6,100 guests were allowed, though only 4,500 or so showed, he said.
“Visits are down, and that’s clear across the country,” he said. “We’ve had some good days, but overall, the size of crowds are far below (a normal year).”
Still, last week was a bit chaotic: A winter storm dropped a blanket of fresh powder on both mountains, causing a rush to hit the slopes Dec. 29, leading into a holiday weekend.
At Wolf Creek Ski Area, people started parking along U.S. Highway 160, creating traffic and safety concerns. And at Purgatory Resort, everyone showed up at the same time, Rathbun said, resulting in long lift lines. Later in the week, the main lift from the mountain’s base camp broke, too.
There is less risk getting COVID-19 while outdoors, but it is still important to social distance, wear a mask and avoid close contact with people from outside a household, said Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health.
It’s also important to consider that ski resorts bring tourists from all over the country, Jollon said, and those people are active in the community, going out to eat or shopping downtown.
“Over the holidays, we saw a jump in out-of-jurisdiction positive cases,” she said. “(Ski resorts) are a magnet for tourists, and that has the potential to be part of a post-holiday surge, if we have one.”
Ski resorts have done their best to open while trying to operate as safely as possible, said Brian Devine, deputy incident commander of the COVID-19 response for SJBPH.
Both Purgatory and Wolf Creek have increased cleaning. Purgatory reduced indoor capacity for in-person dining, and Wolf Creek decided to just offer takeout. And at Purgatory, the resort asks drivers to drop groups off at the entrance then park, so only one person has to ride the shuttle.
“They have all the same challenges all the other operators have, and then some,” Devine said.
This winter, Purgatory has about 660 employees, and since opening, only a handful have had to quarantine, Rathbun said.
“Our team has done an amazing job of taking care of themselves so they can take care of our guests,” he said.
Wolf Creek’s staff fluctuates, but over the holidays, there were about 300 employees working. Since October, only three have tested positive for the virus, Pitcher said.
“We’re all just trying to get through this together,” he said. “If we just show some empathy for each other, we don’t have to get into whether (COVID-19 protocols) are right or wrong, it’s just a way to go skiing.”