With Sanitized Boulders And Masked-Up Gondolas, Colorado Ski Resorts Hope To Welcome Back Tourists, Not The Virus

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Stina Sieg/CPR News
Like many ski towns, Vail Village was pretty quiet while its resort was closed due to the pandemic. Since July 1, the town has begun filling back up with summer visitors.

Halfway up Vail Mountain and a few steps from Gondola One’s constant whirl, the view is stunning. Pine trees dot vibrant green meadows, with the grey crags of the Gore Range off in the distance, all under a cloudless blue sky. 

A few small groups of people could be seen along the slopes, too, most hiking in masks. 

Vail Ski Resort is one of many Colorado ski areas that have begun to emerge from hibernation after Gov. Jared Polis closed down the industry in mid-March as coronavirus barreled into the state. Now, these resorts are navigating a summer season like none before. 

Phil Sutton and his wife, Vanessa, were visiting from Broomfield to celebrate their 22nd anniversary in Vail. Both were impressed with how the resort handled things.

“I love all the precautions, the distancing, the masks,” said Phil. “They seem to be doing a real good job of doing the best they can to contain the spread.” 

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Vail employee Dan Santaella welcomes guests to the gondola and scans tickets through a giant, clear barrier.

For the three and a half months Vail was closed during the height of the pandemic, resort management worked on plans for how to reopen, said chief operating officer Beth Howard.

“Safety is our highest priority,” she said, “and everything we do is through that lens.”

That’s why you won’t see her — or any other Vail employee — not wearing a mask, even while outside.

The resort requires visitors to mask up in all indoor spaces, including gondolas, even when individuals ride alone. Other measures are familiar to businesses around the state: physically distanced waiting lines and closed dressing rooms at stores. While the village’s restaurants have indoor seating available, the resort is only offering grab-and-go meals.

Employees spend their days on the mountain disinfecting any surfaces likely to be touched by customers, from benches to boulders, every 30 minutes or whenever someone gets up.

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Vail employee Matthew Good disinfects certain high-touch areas — including benches, tables and sometimes even boulders — continually throughout the day.

While the resort says it seems to be getting an uptick in Colorado visitors, many who stay here still come from other states, especially Texas.

“We’re just taking a little mental break from all the craziness and wildness down there, and all over the world actually,” Manoj Bhardwaj said. He was visiting from Houston, along with his brother and both their families. The two men are doctors who deal with COVID-19 patients. 

As his young son pulled at him to get back on the trail, Bhardwaj added that he felt at peace at Vail — and also safe. 

“I think they’re doing it just right,” he said, of the resort’s precautions. “I don’t sense that panic everywhere. I think they’re playing it cautiously, cause you never know what’s going to happen down the road.” 

Stina Sieg/CPR News
Visitors walk across Vail Village’s covered bridge, the unofficial dividing line between the resort town and the rest of the world. The ski area and the town started requiring masks be worn indoors long before the statewide mandate.

The road ahead for Vail, and the communities around it, looks increasingly bumpy. In late spring, with case numbers under control, Eagle County was granted the first waiver to reopen faster than the rest of the state. Yet, infections have again begun to tick up steadily. The town of Avon recently canceled its outdoor concert and film series out of concern, and the county’s health department has limited private gathering to no more than 10 people. 

Early in the pandemic, busy ski towns were a hub for virus transmission, which means Vail and other resorts are under pressure to get things right before they head into winter, their busiest season of the year. 

“You’d be hard-pressed to find a more optimistic industry than the ski industry,” said Chris Linsmayer, with ski area trade group Ski Country USA. “We joke that we’re snow farmers.”

This means resorts are used to uncertainty and weathering dry years with fewer visitors. But it’s hard to imagine Mother Nature delivering a hit as big as the coronavirus; Vail lost $140 million across its chain of resorts this spring

The goal resorts have for this winter, Linsmayer explained, is to figure out how to manage things like social distancing in lodges and other indoor areas. The thing that brings most people here though — the skiing — should be safe.

“Once you’re up and on the mountain, you’re inherently socially distanced,” he said.

Even with all the precautions Vail Ski Resort is taking this summer visiting Boulder resident Li Brookens still felt vulnerable to the larger world. 

“This is an international town — the way that people are visiting from all over,” they said.  

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Li Brookens and their wife, Sarah Williams, said they didn’t feel comfortable eating inside any restaurants but were happy to hang out on Vail’s trail’s and by nearby lakes with their almost-3-year-old daughter, Harper.

Brookens was concerned that, while most guests within the resort area itself kept their masks on outdoors, some people outside those boundaries, in Vail Village itself, were less diligent, donning them only to enter buildings. Brookens and their wife explained they were being cautious and staying mostly outdoors, and away from others, with their almost-3-year-old, Harper. 

“We’re willing to ride the gondola, though,” Brookens said, with a laugh, “because this is great entertainment for her.”

Editor's Note: this story has been updated to correct Chris Linsmayer 's name.