The Vail Valley Is Open For Business. Just Bring Your Mask

The Vail Valley
Laura Jepsen/CPR News
Vail Valley in summer 2016, taken from the Vail Ski Resort gondola.

The coronavirus is not keeping tourists away from Colorado’s Vail Valley. 

Despite canceled fireworks shows and concerts, hotels are either full or nearly full in the popular weekend getaway along I-70. Rafting and fishing outfitters are turning down new reservations. Restaurants can only operate at 50 percent capacity indoors, but tables are booked at many of the most popular options. 

Greg Kelchner, owner and founder of Timblerline Tours, said his company’s rafting and jeep trips are at capacity for the weekend. He said activity is below a normal Fourth of July weekend, but it’s more than he expected in the midst of a pandemic

“There’s still a segment of travelers who are interested in coming to the mountains,” he said. 

The holiday weekend marks a critical test for the Vail Valley. Local officials and business leaders are hoping to show they can welcome travelers without seeding new outbreaks. If they succeed, their policies could provide a model for other mountain communities dependent on tourism. 

If they fail, Colorado could look back on this weekend as the source of a new wave of coronavirus cases. 

Eagle County, home to Vail, Avon and Beaver Creek, was the first county in the state to win the right to set their own public health guidance during the pandemic. Until recently, the local strategy appeared to be working. Disease surveillance data from Eagle County Public Health and Environment showed coronavirus cases peaked in mid-March, then declined to almost nothing in June. 

The county proceeded to further loosen restrictions with state permission. It named each stage of its coronavirus response after ski slope difficulty ratings, with looser rules correlated to tougher slopes. On Thursday, it shifted from its “blue stage” to its “black diamond stage,” which lets hotels return to full capacity. The new order also allows up to 100 people to gather indoors so long as they follow social distancing guidelines. 

Not everything is getting more lenient, though.   

After a slight rise in local coronavirus cases, the county started requiring face masks inside public buildings, instead of recommending them. County Manager Jeff Shroll said the new order is meant to protect against new infections and help businesses keep their doors open. 

“The significant uptick in visitors to our county from out of state -- they are coming in to enjoy our mountains,” he said. “We're happy to do that for our economy”

Kristen Pryor, the general manager of the Westin Riverfront and Spa in Avon, said the mask order comes as a relief to her employees, who can now reference the policy when asking guests to cover their nose and mouth.

“It’s really about social responsibility. If we can get everyone to wear them, we can stay open,” she said.  

Pryor’s 230-guest hotel is nearly fully booked for the holiday weekend. From the license plates in the parking lot, she said it appears most of the guests are from the Front Range or other parts of Colorado. That makes sense given her company’s recent advertising efforts, which have tried to lure the “drive market” for permitted activities like horseback riding, rafting and golf. 

But not all guests are from inside the state’s borders. The parking lot also contains license plates from Utah and Texas, which have emerged as national pandemic hotspots over the last few weeks. 

Pryor expects a second coronavirus wave in Eagle County is just a matter of time. But as a member of a  reopening task force for business leaders, she believes the community will be much better prepared than it was in March. Her hotel now has plexiglass barriers at the front desk and updated cleaning procedures. It’s also keeping lists of guests to assist with contact tracing efforts if necessary. 

“We all know there will be a spike,” she said. “And we’re prepared.”