Last Saturday afternoon, hundreds of people milled around the village at Winter Park Resort.
They ducked into the shops and restaurants that line the main street. They bought green-dyed beer for St. Patrick’s Day. They huddled around fire pits. Some even took part in a hula hoop competition.
Twelve hours later, the same street was eerily quiet and mostly empty.
In an unprecedented move, operations at the ski resort just an hour outside of Denver were suspended in the wake of an executive order by Gov. Jared Polis Saturday night to address the coronavirus pandemic. In a statement, Polis called the decision to close resorts statewide “agonizing” and said it was made “with a profound sense of pain and grim responsibility.” He also acknowledged the impact the decision would have on businesses and workers. Skiing is a billion-dollar industry in the state.
The same day, Alterra Mountain Company, which operates Winter Park, made the decision to shut down its 15 North American destinations until further notice, which also closes Steamboat Resort in Routt County.
The ultimate goal is to save lives, said Polis, and prevent the continued spread of COVID-19. Denver ordered bars and restaurants to close on-site eating and 50 National Guard troops are on the move in the Western Slope to deploy mobile testing.
“This is all new, I think, to everybody,” said Jen Miller, director of communications for Winter Park Resort.
Miller said she was shocked and disappointed, but she understood why the decision was made.
Now, her staff will try to navigate the abrupt closure and the uncertainty it brings. Her first priority is to make sure employees and guests are taken care of. To that end, resort housing will remain open indefinitely, and several dining options in the village will stay open as well.
“There’s a lot of implications from this decision that extend far beyond the fact that people can’t ski,” Miller said.
According to its website, the resort is working with guests to issue refunds on upcoming travel and rentals.
On Sunday, the gondola remained closed to the public but still in operation, as it transported food and beverage supplies from summit lodges to the mountain’s base. Manning the gondola was William Trull, a lift attendant from Nebraska. He had recently returned from vacation to the news that the resort was closing.
“I was crying this morning,” he said. “Everyone’s just heartbroken. Nothing like this has happened in 80 years plus.”
Trull said it’s not immediately clear when and how he’ll be paid. There are staff meetings scheduled to address those concerns. He’s not hopeful he can pick up more work locally, even though several businesses and activities in downtown Winter Park remained open as of Sunday.
“Everything in the valley I’m sure is gonna close down as well,” he said. “So everyone out here is gonna be struggling here in about a week.”
Trull said he’ll return home to find work in Nebraska if needed, but he worries about upcoming travel he’s planned for the summer, to Argentina.
A deflated feeling hung over the village Sunday, as guests returned equipment rentals and called airlines to reschedule flights.
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Eric Harding, who drove in with his family from Fort Collins, said he isn’t sure how long he’ll stay. He arrived at Winter Park around the time the closing announcement was made.
“We got here last night and we were expecting to be here for a week,” Harding said.
Still, he said, “It’s not that bad for us because we’re only a couple hours away. I do feel bad for the people who are coming from out of state.”
This isn’t the first time Harding’s been confronted with the reality of Colorado’s measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. He’s a teacher in Fort Collins, and won’t be returning to the classroom after his spring break. Instead, he’ll teach his classes online for at least the following week.
“I don’t know exactly how that’s all gonna look,” Harding said.
Still, he seemed to be making the best of a disappointing closure. He and his family brought their snowshoes and were planning to hike around the mountain, which doesn’t require lift access.
In another corner of the village, members of the Blake family sat around a table, trying to plan their next move.
They flew in from different parts of the country for their annual ski trip.
Sabrina Blake, who came from Clearwater, Florida, said the closure won’t affect her decision to return next year.
“I am disappointed,” Blake said. “But we’re gonna make the best of it. Everybody here locally has been very accommodating.”
The governor’s executive order means Colorado resorts will remain closed for at least a week. But with Alterra Mountain Company’s move closing Winter Park until further notice, it’s uncertain if the resort will be open again before the ski season ends.