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Working as a journalist during COVID-19 has been a chance to stay connected

This trucker slithered through the roadblock at the Gypsum Interstate 70 interchange during last summer’s two-week highway closure due to the Grizzly Creek fire. His thought process remains a mystery.
Scott N. Miller smiller@vaildaily.com

Everyone’s life changed during the pandemic, and everyone has a different story about those changes, and how life is different today.

In mid-March of 2020, the Vail Daily’s once-bustling office turned into a ghost town. The office today remains largely empty, with a handful of stalwarts rattling around inside.

Before the pandemic, my own work was mostly in the office or at Vail’s Town Hall, with occasional ventures out for interviews and photos. For the past year, that work has all been done from what was once the “we don’t have a garage, so let’s throw it in there” room in our family’s Gypsum townhome.

There’s plenty of light, and the view out the north-facing window provides a view of the world going by on Interstate 70. We’re also among the first to know when the folks at the Gypsum Shooting Sports Park trot out a cannon, or a machine gun.

When the Grizzly Creek Fire raged in Glenwood Canyon, that view got eerie during the summer’s two-week closure of Interstate 70. It was delightfully quiet on the back deck, and a quick story came when a nitwit truck driver decided to sneak through the roadblocks at the Gypsum interchange, only to be stopped, and presumably issued an expensive ticket, just a mile into his misbegotten journey.

Life in Isolation Station Gypsum could be far, far worse, but it’s a strange way to live and work. My very, very patient wife is here, a Godsend. Our daughter, 22, also lived with us for the year, not the sort of post-college life-launch she expected.

Our daughter is now working full-time and living in Vail (good for her), and the missus works — carefully — outside the home, but I can’t imagine life without someone else here. Those who live alone are getting a bit bored and brittle — as a longtime friend acknowledged in a recent phone conversation.

Our phones have become a lifeline for many of us, and for those of a certain age, voice calls reign supreme. Conversations with sources tend to last a bit longer than they once did. There’s quite a lot more chit-chat, a chance to talk to people while working from a home office occupied during the day by a reporter and a cat.

I’ve jumped at the rare opportunities for in-person meetings — done at appropriate social distances, of course, and the handful of opportunities for meeting the work crew and, occasionally, family members, has been pretty joyful occasions.

But the work has been a chance to stay connected with the world. I hope we’ve been able to provide some of those connections for our readers. There’s always a story to tell, and not all are grim, although being down less than initially predicted in lodging days, or sales tax collections or other business indicators are strange definitions of “good.”

As we start to see light at the end of the pandemic tunnel — which, with luck and work, won’t be an oncoming train — which changes might stick? It’s hard to imagine returning to the office full-time. Summer will be different, because it’s fun to ride a motorcycle to work and back.

We’ll see.

Wait and see seems to be the case with much of the world these days, but it’s easy to see the day, and it will come, when working from home becomes an option, when handshakes and hugs replace fist bumps and elbow taps, and when we can linger at a restaurant instead of dash in for a take-out order.

That day will be joyous, and our stories will change as our lives move away from isolation and toward again gathering without worrying about masks and disinfectant wipes. And we look forward to telling those stories.

One desk, two pandemics

During the past year, Vail Daily reporter Pam Boyd spend a lot of time at this desk reporting about COVID-19. She found inspiration from its former owner — Ray Lanyon of the Longmont Daily Times-Call, who likely wrote stories about the Spanish Flu pandemic from the same setup.
Special to the Daily

I spent a part of pretty much every day of our COVID-19 pandemic year seated at the antique roll top desk in my home office.

It isn’t at all ergonomic, but I love this desk so much. It’s a behemoth, with under drawers that extend out a full 3 feet and 16 desktop cubbyholes of varying sizes including a lockable box and three secret compartments. It takes up about a quarter of the floor space in my small office.

Whenever I open the center drawer, a small piece of my childhood comes to life. That drawer still smells like it did when I would search for a homework pencil. It used to be my dad’s desk and he always had pens and pencils, emblazoned with Brown’s Shoe Fit Company advertising, stowed there. “A fit for every foot” declared the promotional swag, but through the printing process, the word “foot” often looked like it said “fool.” My friends used to rib me about that.

My dad ran his Longmont, Colorado, shoe store for 42 years. He retired in 1985 but today Brown’s is as busy as ever at its Main Street location. That would make him happy. It would also make him happy to know I love sitting at his desk because he once told me it was meant to be mine.

While dad was the desk’s most recent owner, he was only one part of its history. An avid woodworker, dad painstakingly restored its tiger oak charm. But he didn’t buff away the marks left by still-burning cigarettes that line the desktop or the bottle water mark stain from inside one of its deep drawers. Dad felt the desk earned those scars and they told its story.

The desk made it to my dad’s possession back in the late 1960s or early 1970s. According to him, he was at Longmont Daily Times-Call newspaper office one day to finalize a shoe sale ad when someone in charge started complaining about how the desk took up way too much space in the newsroom.

“How much money do you have in your pocket, Paul Holmes,” the fellow bellowed. My dad had a $20 bill and it bought him an antique desk.

Another part of the desk’s story is recounted in a matted and framed 1957 newspaper article that he hung on the wall above it. “The latest news by shotgun” reads the article headline. The story announces the retirement of Ray Lanyon, the publisher of the Longmont Daily Times-Call. The accompanying picture shows him seated at his/my desk.

Ray Lanyon, seated at his desk in the Longmont Daily Times-Call newsroom from a 1957 newspaper clipping.
Special to the Daily

Pandemic journalism

Ray Lanyon began work at the Times Call when he was just 14 years old. He climbed his way up from newspaper carrier to printer. He became so proficient at operating the linotype machine, he was able to compose stories directly on it. That’s quite a skill, as anyone who has ever watched a linotype operate can attest. In 1919, Ray and his wife Elsie mortgaged their home to purchase the newspaper and he served as its publisher for the next 38 years.

Almost every time I sit down to write a story, I glance up at that picture of Ray and wonder what he would think. “You and I are both reporting the news, but I bet it would blow your mind to see how the job is done today,” is my usual thought. But that changed this year.

At some point during the early days of COVID-19, it struck me that in all likelihood, Ray also covered a pandemic. The Spanish Flu hit Longmont hard during 1918. Last April, Eric Mason — who is the curator of the Longmont History Museum — wrote a Times-Call story that detailed how by Dec. 3, 1918, the flu had claimed the lives of 55 residents in town. Longmont’s population was just 5,500 back then so that represented 1% of the city’s population.

That’s a hard image to shake. If 1% of Eagle County’s population died from COVID-19, we would be talking about 550 deaths. We have lost 22 neighbors to COVID-19 and that’s left a noticeable hole in our community.

I spent a lot of time during the past 12 months looking at that newspaper photo of Ray, wondering how many stories he wrote about the Spanish Flu. Did he repeatedly remind people about public health orders and deal with residents who refused to believe the pandemic was real? Did he interview families about lost loved ones and then tear up as he typed?

Ray has been my periodic muse ever since his desk made its way to my house. But this year, he was also my imaginary friend. I never had the chance to actually meet the man — he died on Oct. 7, 1961, two weeks to the day after I was born. Maybe we were both patients at Longmont Community Hospital at the same time. But I’ve enjoyed learning details about Ray’s life, thanks to the help of the aforementioned Eric Mason.

He served as Longmont mayor for 12 years from 1931 to 1943. “He couldn’t stand to see men out of work and it is said he got more WPA projects for Longmont than any other mayor in northern Colorado,” reads the memorial editorial that appeared in the Oct. 9, 1961 edition of the Times-Call.

Back in the early 1920s, Ray editorially battled the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in Longmont. “He was threatened at the office and at home. A campaign was launched to have subscriptions canceled. He never relented,” reads that same 1961 piece.

But my favorite line from that editorial is this: “After selling his holdings in the Daily Times-Call, he was named editor emeritus in honor of 38 years as the previous publisher. Until his recent illness, there was seldom a day he wasn’t at the desk reserved for him.”

My imaginary colleague

For the past year, while I was working alone in my house, every now and then I would talk to Ray. It made for a nice break from my conversations with the dog and the cat. “See Ray, here I am, trying to let people know what they need to know,” I’d say. I think he would have appreciated my efforts at relevance. I think he would have recognized them.

I wonder how his work writing about the Spanish Flu pandemic stacked up against all the big stories Ray must have covered during his career. Was it up there with the 1929 stock market crash or Pearl Harbor Day? Did the job of extended Spanish Flu coverage produce the same combination of exhaustion and fulfillment that covering COVID-19 has? At the Vail Daily, we worked hard this year and we are proud of our pandemic reach. We remain committed to this reporting effort as demonstrated this week with our Shining Through series.

But even after a year when I spent a ton of time at my desk, I am certain that I will never bang out as as many stories there as Ray did. I can almost see him pulling up his chair and pounding away at his Underwood typewriter, as he did for almost four decades.

Many years ago, my dad told me we wanted me to have the desk because it needed to go to a journalist. I like to believe that Ray — my silent partner in pandemic reporting — would have thought so, too.

Notes on a pandemic: A year covering COVID-19

Larry Cavanaugh waves an American Flag as two F-16 fighter planes fly over Vail (top left corner) on May 6. The flyover was to pay respect to health care workers around Colorado.
Chris Dillmann, cdillmann@vaildaily.com

My father-in-law, the best journalist I know, joked earlier this month that he didn’t know he’d been social distancing his entire life. It only took a global pandemic for him to realize it.

He mentioned this, with a wry smile, during his first trip to Colorado in more than a year to see his grandkids after getting vaccinated.

And it’s true. Like the memes that circulated last spring, COVID-19 is an introvert’s dream.

But even for introverts like me, who often prefer a good book or a magazine to company, the vast remoteness of the past 12 months has gotten to be too much. One can only take so many Zoom calls and happy hours before craving real connections.

I say that, knowing that Zoom has been the most important tool we’ve used as a newsroom over the past year.

When I arrived back at the Vail Daily in January 2019, nearly 14 years after I’d left, it was like stepping into a time warp. The office layout had changed, but not much else.

Stories were still created in a dated content management system for the print newspaper, and then scraped for the web — a workflow that was totally backward for a modern newsroom. And communication between reporters and editors was a tangled mess of emails, texts and phone calls.

At CBSSports.com, where I’d worked the previous eight years, everything was done in Slack — a channel-based platform that organized a whole constellation of editors and reporters across the country into tidy chat rooms. You could direct message anyone on the editorial team at any time to get an answer on something, and every chat room — NFL, NBA, MLB, college football, golf, and on and on — was its own little universe where story ideas were batted around and content worked its way through the publishing conveyor belt.

When I explained how Slack worked, Sean Naylor, the Vail Daily’s digital engagement editor who’d been a Slacker just like me in previous jobs, explained that the Daily had something similar called Zoom.

After a quick spin through the video-conferencing app, every Daily staffer was quickly ordered to download the app on their phones and henceforth, all newsroom business would be primarily done through Zoom.

A year before COVID-19, we were truly prepared to go completely remote as a staff. But we were never prepared for a global pandemic. There’s no app for that.

Just like you, we adapted, evolved and figured out how to keep pushing on in a year that stretched every single one of us personally and professionally.

Zoom, at first, was a blessing. It kept us connected in isolation. We had weekly all-staff Zoom happy hours in those first few months to help keep each other’s spirits up. We had robust brainstorming sessions to figure out how to best cover our community from one emergency to the next, from COVID-19 and the ensuing economic crisis that came with it to the social unrest brought on by a national reawakening to racial injustice to a historic wildfire season. The deaths of community members, so many of them friends or acquaintances we knew, hit especially hard.

As the weeks and months passed, and nerves got frayed as COVID fatigue set in, it became ever more difficult to read the Zoom room. The center started to come apart.

The most challenging part? Meeting the needs of our community that was so desperate for reliable, valuable information when our own business was in turmoil. In one week, last spring, the Vail Daily lost about half of its advertising revenue. The fallout was brutal: reduced hours, furloughs and layoffs across our newsroom.

Those hard conversations with loyal staffers, over Zoom, no less, were painful.

Equally as hard, at least for me: Juggling fatherhood duties while trying to run a newsroom. No matter what I did, or how hard I worked, I felt like a failure in either role. There was just too little of me to go around.

Through it all, we never once mailed it in or forgot who we were working for: loyal readers like you who relied on our reporting and who told us when we were doing a good job and when we needed to do better.

We’re proud that we reached a larger audience than we ever have, leading all Swift Communications and Colorado Mountain News Media properties in 2020 for page views and reader engagement. But none of us got into reporting because we’re math whizzes.

What I care about, along with every single one of my staffers, is what those numbers say: that we delivered the essential reporting our community needed in a time of crisis. That reporting was the antithesis of click bait — just reliable, locally-sourced news, as fast as we could deliver it.

As we close the book on this series, “Shining Through,” that looked back at how our community responded to the challenge of COVID-19 over the past 12 months, we tip our hats to you, our readers, who made us better and supported our work. And we look forward to the days this summer, with our valley rapidly approaching herd immunity, when we can see so many of you in person to say thanks — whether at a live show, or on the softball diamond, or out and about around the valley.

Thanks for letting us tell the story of an amazing comeback that’s just getting going.

The shows must go on: How the Vail Valley’s entertainment scene stayed vibrant during a pandemic

Shakedown Presents partnered with the town of Vail over the summer to offer live music in a safe outdoor setting outside of the Betty Ford Alpine Gardens. Normally the concerts would be at Shakedown Bar on Bridge Street, but with shutdown orders, there were more outdoor concerts during COVID-19. The concert pictured was in August.
Daily file photo

In between the day-to-day, black-and-white parts of our lives, the arts are there to fill in the color. When the pandemic forced music venues and movie theaters to shut down, and wiped big gatherings off the calendar, many promoters and organizations across the country simply threw up their hands, saying protocols and the entire effort is just not worth the hassle.

Not here in Eagle County.

The Vilar Performing Arts Center at Beaver Creek was the first indoor venue in the state to reopen its doors to a live audience when the local Rocky Mountain Grateful Dead Revue performed in front of a crowd of 50 people in early June.

The outdoor venue at Avon’s Nottingham Park also was one of the first to reopen to live music. The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail made the pivot to open with movie nights on the lawn, as well as live music over the summer.

Local wedding planners changed from working on large-scale weddings to smaller, intimate gatherings with great success. Together, wedding planners in the valley launched a group chat immediately when the pandemic hit to help keep each other up to date on protocols, venue changes as well as possible clients to pick up.

Bravo! Vail, Vail Jazz and other regular favorites around the valley all jumped on the online opportunities. The Vail Jazz Interludes series brought performances online where episodes are still available to watch.

Restaurants were quick to offer carry out, and even create new trends, such as Sweet Basil and Mountain Standard’s finish-at-home meals. Grand Avenue Grill was quick to set up a drive-through window (and also walk-through). And both Vail and Beaver Creek opened public consumption areas around the villages.

Alpine Arts Center went virtual and was teaching art across the world online.

The Riverwalk Theater in Edwards adapted to allow moviegoers to bring in their own films to watch as a small group, as well as expanded its food menu to offer more robust items. The local theater, “on the brink of shutting down,“ has been able to stay open.

Across the valley, there was no giving up. The shows had to go on, and thankfully in this valley, they did — and are looking to open up more this summer with the GoPro Mountain Games, Vail Craft Beer Classic, Gypsum Daze and other events starting to fill out the schedule.

The Vilar Performing Arts Center at Beaver Creek was the first indoor venue in the state to welcome back a live audience after the pandemic shutdown. The Vilar Center, like other venues and businesses in the valley, have been in constant communication with health officials since the pandemic started to be able to stay open.
Daily file photo

While people in the food, arts and entertainment industry realize that hospital workers and other front-line workers should deserve the praise for helping get us through the COVID-19 pandemic, it has still been a very tough year for restaurants, venues, musicians and other businesses that make this valley special.

But it’s worth it.

“The arts are working to heal people, that is emphasized more so than ever right now,” said Owen Hutchinson, executive director of the Vilar Center at Beaver Creek. “We need the arts to be an integral part of our valley’s and our community’s healing process, and it feels natural for the arts to serve the community in that way.”

“It gives perspective,” said Tom Boyd, director of the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail. “What is art, what is gathering? Why are concerts popular? Why does everyone like to come to Bravo! Vail and Dance Festival and Hot Summer Nights and our concerts, and it’s because that’s where community is made, that’s where our bonds are strengthened as a community.”

Boyd added that with more and more people out and about exploring parts of Vail they might not have before, places like The Amp, Betty Ford Alpine Gardens and others benefited from increased foot traffic.

Collaboration is key in Eagle County during COVID-19, as local nonprofits, businesses and health professionals have maintained constant communication to be able to open doors and offer things to do outside of our homes this past year, and leading into the summer.

When it all shut down

Restaurants like La Tour in Vail adjusted with COVID-19 protocols to stay open for business during the pandemic. La Tour was one of many restaurants to add outdoor options suitable for winter.
Dominique Taylor/Special to the Daily

As businesses and venues, and the ski resorts, shut down in March of 2020, it was a difficult task for local venues like the Vilar Center and Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater to shut down — emails had to go out, artists had to be contacted, the venue itself had to be closed. But as hard as it was to shut down, it was even harder to start opening back up.

For musical venues, musicians and others in the industry, it was constant planning, replanning and then planning again from scratch trying to stay on top of the most current health protocols. Some outdoor venues took advantage of the squared-seating arrangements, allowing for social distancing with each group in their own square.

There were also financial questions around opening things back up, whether it was viable or even sustainable. Many local businesses and venues were of the mindset of the Vail Valley Foundation and its venues, the amphitheater in Vail and Vilar Center at Beaver Creek.

“We took a huge risk, and we basically jumped off a cliff into the void thinking this is the right thing to do, and we’ll figure out the money later, and we have,” Boyd said.

State and federal funding also helped some Eagle County arts and entertainment businesses. The Vail Valley Foundation, Cascade Village Theatre Inc., Valley Events Inc. and The Art Base received state relief totaling $242,000 in February. The Turn up the Amp fundraising effort raised $60,000 for the amphitheater in Vail as well.

The Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail was busy planning, replanning and then planning again from scratch to be able to offer live entertainment during the summer.
Ross Leonhart/rleonhart@vaildaily.com

At the Alpine Arts Center, the lockdown came right after the local business celebrated its 10-year anniversary.

“It was a rollercoaster of ups and downs that month, but we worked quickly to transition our programs and our art store for the shutdown,” owner Lauren Merrill said via email. “We created to-go kits and virtual classes so our community had a creative outlet while we were closed.”

The Vilar Center hosts a variety of performances throughout a given year, but March is usually one of the busiest months.

“I remember that week so clearly because we were in the height of our busy March season at the VPAC,” Hutchinson recalls. “We had everything from dance companies to rock ‘n’ roll concerts happening that week.”

Blue Moose Pizza in Beaver Creek was one of many restaurants that made adjustments on the fly.

“Well, we found out the exact same time the rest of our valley did,” owner Brian Nolan said in an email about the shutdown. “Initially the first few days it was a little crazy as there is no Game Book for this thing.”

When reopening, all venues, restaurants and other entertainment businesses put a priority on safety — and still do.

Alpine Arts Center first started to-go art kits in March of 2020, an early adaptation to pandemic life.
Special to the Daily

As a pioneer in the state for venues reopening, the Vilar Center’s protocols include limited capacity in its already-intimate 535-seat theater, a temperature check at the door as well as other guidelines to follow.

Dean Davis has been working at the Vilar Center for almost 15 years and is in charge of the cleaning. He also was the one to figure out the seating arrangements for the venue with COVID-19 distancing protocols. Davis worked on that while at home in quarantine, since he had all of the building drawings on his computer at home. He started drawing circles working off the 6 feet social distancing standard. He made charts for groups of one, two and four to be prepared for whatever protocols came.

Davis is also looking into upgrading the venue’s ventilator system, a requirement of the 5 Star state program. He’d been looking into it for years, but the financial restraints hindered his hope. But with COVID-19 and a push for public health, he has an extra card in his hand when pushing for the new ventilators.

“I like to call myself one of the shoemaker’s elves — one of the people in the background, no one sees what we do,” Davis said.

Davis himself sprays down the venue with a new and improved electro-sprayer backpack — with a Ghostbusters sticker stuck on to complete the image. He goes through the auditorium, lobby area, bathrooms and anywhere someone might touch — walking backwards to avoid the spray.

“We’re all very aware of the fact that if someone gets sick, we have to shut down,” Davis said of attendees or the Vilar Center’s limited staff. “And we really don’t want to do that.”

Kristen Ruthemeyer Hammer also helped the Vilar Center navigate returning to live performances. She has been with the Vilar Center for almost four years and is the production manager — hiring and managing crews, coordinating equipment in the building, in charge of the spending budget and anything regarding production.

In addition to all she does behind the scenes, Ruthemeyer Hammer is also a backup violinist just in case a musician gets stuck in a snowstorm and can’t make it to town.

Classic Albums Live was doing a Beatles show at the Vilar Center, and one of the two violinists didn’t make it out from Denver because of a snowstorm.

“They were freaking out about this violinist, so I said, ‘Well, how hard is the music?’ They just kind of looked at me and I told them I haven’t practiced in a while but I play the violin. If the music’s not hard I could probably do it.”

They gave her the music, she practiced for a couple of hours that day and then went on stage that night.

“That’s the only time that’s happened,” she said with a laugh. “I’m definitely more comfortable backstage and I definitely find my complicated production management job to be much easier than sitting on stage with a violin.”

Ruthemeyer Hammer, like many others in the valley, was diligent and used her attention to detail to help stay on top of reopening in a safe manner — and staying open.

In Vail, the town partnered with musicians and venues like Vail Jazz, Shakedown Bar and others to provide live music outdoors over the summer.

Both Beaver Creek Village and the villages in Vail expanded outdoor seating during the pandemic as well as more areas for public consumption of alcohol.
Ross Leonhart/rleonhart@vaildaily.com

Pushing forward

With some restaurants, entertainment groups, movie theaters and other local business shutting down due to COVID-19, it hasn’t been all good news. However, many local entertainment businesses not only survived but thrived through the past year.

One of the positives for musicians and music venues over the past year was the focus on local and regional. Bands like The Runaway Grooms and other small-town bands with big sounds took to the premier stages like the Vilar Center and the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail.

“One of the things that I love so much about music is that it gets to take us away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life,” Tierro Lee said during a performing at the Vilar Center in July. “Tonight, I really hope we’re all going to go on a journey together and kind of escape these COVID times for a minute and remember that there are good times to come.”

The Vilar Center’s Ghost Light Series was a popular hit.

“There are all sorts of traditions and superstitions in theater, such as not bringing mirrors on stage, no whistling from back stage, saying ‘break a leg’ and never mentioning The Scottish Play,” said Duncan Horner, the former executive director of theVilar Center. “Another is to make sure to turn on an exposed incandescent bulb center stage known as ‘the ghost light’ before turning off other lights and vacating the theater. I like to think of it as providing an eternal flame that remains on between shows, providing a baseline of energy that allows us to look forward to the next wave of entertainment.”

The Runaway Grooms, who put on a drive-by concert series across the valley in September, are one of many bands banking up some new music while the world was shut down.

“We’re just kind of preparing for when the world opens back up to have a good arsenal of new music that captures the five-piece evolution of the band,” Grooms member Zach Gilliam said.

Instead of giving up when faced with COVID-19 protocols, local venues like the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail got creative and diligent to continue to offer entertainment throughout the pandemic.
Special to the Daily

Another trend that appears to be sticking is the livestream of performances online, opening musicians and venues up to a wider, more global audience. Also, with people eagerly looking for things to do, and safely, new businesses have hit the scene, like Wood & Steel Axe Company offering mobile axe-throwing events as well as at its location in Vail.

Also, another collaborative effort, Magic of Lights organizers are planning a return next winter, with more time to plan and prepare the lights spectacle.

“It was crazy popular, people loved it,” Boyd said. “And we had to put the whole thing together in two months.”

Magic of Lights came together thanks to the town of Vail, Vail Valley Foundation Events and Fun Guys Events.

“Basically, we just figured it out,” Boyd said.

Which seems to be a common thread in this valley of resiliency. As that fateful mid-March day was known as the day the music died elsewhere around the country, and the world, Eagle County refused to let the music die and will push forward — as a community.

The Vail Daily’s Tricia Swenson and Casey Russell contributed reporting to this story. Assistant Editor Ross Leonhart can be reached at 970-748-2984 and rleonhart@vaildaily.com. Follow him on Instagram at colorado_livin_on_the_hill.

Stronger together: How Eagle County’s health care workers rose to the challenge of COVID-19

Vail Health nurse Nicole Campbell administers a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Jordon Nicholson of Conifer on Wednesday at Vail Health Hospital.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

In the thick of the pandemic, in a year that refused to let up, Caitlyn Ngam started running.

An infection preventionist at Vail Health Hospital, Ngam prefers more daring outdoor pursuits: whitewater kayaking, dirt biking, and tearing down the mountain on her skis. But with her professional life bleeding into every aspect of her personal life, Ngam needed a release valve. As the 14-hour days at the hospital stacked up, and the toll of the pandemic weighed on her, she found herself being pulled outdoors for what she jokingly referred to as “jogging on purpose.”

Caitlyn Ngam said she was always able to leave her work at the hospital. That changed with the arrival of COVID-19.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Running from something? Towards something? Ngam isn’t so sure, but whatever it was, she absolutely needed it.

“I used to be able to leave thinking about infectious disease and masking and hand washing at work,” she said. “And I would go home and go in public and nobody cares about that kind of thing. But now the whole planet is thinking about your work. So it’s harder to escape in that sense.”

Before COVID-19 took over her life, pandemic preparedness was a sidebar in Ngam’s role at Vail Health. It was the “oh, just in case” aspect of a job focused on keeping infections out of the hospital. Name any type of infection — staph, urinary tract, seasonal flu, SARS — and you can be sure that Ngam has, at some point, obsessed over it.

But in early 2020, that “oh, just in case” scenario of a global pandemic quickly consumed every waking minute of her life. Protocols and rigorous training are essential to a job that requires constant vigilance, but Ngam said she could always compartmentalize her work. That changed when a mysterious, airborne virus that originated halfway around the world quickly found its way into every corner of humanity, including Eagle County.

The valley’s two largest health care providers, Vail Health and Colorado Mountain Medical, braced for the arrival of COVID-19 by stockpiling personal protective equipment before supply chains were overwhelmed and launching a system-wide high-level task force to solve logistical challenges as they arose. But when case numbers exploded locally in early March, there was no training to emotionally prepare for the reality of a novel virus that was highly contagious and deadly.

“We see all kinds of infectious disease where we need to take precautions all the time,” Ngam said. “But for something to spread that quickly, we knew that it was something different and that we would be kind of off and running from that point.”

They haven’t slowed down since.

Uncharted waters

Antarctica. That’s where Dr. Brooks Bock was in late January when he first heard about COVID-19. Earth’s least inhabited continent was arguably the safest place on the planet with a global pandemic on the march.

Bock, the CEO of Colorado Mountain Medical, was traveling with his wife on a National Geographic ship to see penguins up close. He first read about the virus that originated from Wuhan, China, in a daily newsletter that rounded up global headlines.

By the time he returned to the Vail Valley in February, he found himself on a voyage unlike any other he’d ever taken in a medical career spanning more than five decades. Over the course of 75 or so days, Bock and Chris Lindley, Vail Health’s chief population health officer, worked out of a command center at the hospital managing the organization-wide response to the pandemic.

What started as a smaller team of high-level managers quickly grew to include as many as 24 different staffers from an array of departments over the months of February, March and April as the first wave of the virus shut down the valley and the state.

The objectives? Keeping the local health care system from buckling under the strain of the virus and protecting health care workers and the community at large.

Vail Health Safety Manager Kimberly Flynn and Vail Health Population Health Director Chris Lindley are joined by Airman First Class Samuel Weber of the Colorado National Guard in receiving the first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Vail Health in early December.
Ben Gadberry/Vail Health

For each member of the team, especially the two men heading up the collaborative effort, the experience was challenging, exhilarating and emotionally draining.

“We got to be good friends,” Bock said. “I have a tremendous respect for him and I enjoyed working with him.”

The challenge of slowing the virus put all of Lindley’s education and experience to the test. A former unit commander and environmental science officer of preventive medicine in the 793rd Medical Detachment of the United States Army Medical Reserves, Lindley served in Iraq and received a Bronze Star for saving multiple lives during a suicide bomber attack. He holds master’s degrees in public health, epidemiology and business administration.

His first job after getting his master’s in epidemiology was working with bioterrorism preparedness for Denver Health Medical Center.

“It was the first in the country training for pandemic influenza or large scale biological warfare attack,” he said. “These things, I’ve been thinking about them my whole career.”

If Lindley had been prepping for a global pandemic for years, Bock represented the opposite end of the spectrum.

The challenge of slowing the virus put all of Lindley’s education and experience to the test. “I think that finger pointing this year has started to decrease and go away,” he said. “And our challenge is, how do we stay in this community collaborative effort going forward?
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

“I certainly never planned to live in a pandemic,” he said. “And hopefully there won’t be another during the rest of my lifetime.”

Working together on the same problems, with the same goals in mind, often times with different approaches, brought the two together — and the two organizations they represented. Colorado Mountain Medical’s merger with Vail Health in July 2019 had, on paper, already created a valley-wide health care network — but Lindley, Bock and Vail Health CEO Will Cook insist that it took a pandemic, of all things, to truly make the two providers inseparable.

“There were lots of moments of concern and doubt,” Bock said. “The amazing thing was that everyone was very supportive. Everyone was very collaborative. There was no one who was trying to run the show. It was a group effort to figure out what we needed to do.”

Each day brought new challenges, and with those challenges came spirited debates, brainstorming sessions and swift innovation.

How to ramp up testing and keep the virus out of the hospital and clinics? Create the state’s first drive-thru testing facility, in Gypsum, and install a testing trailer at the hospital in Vail — both of which were in place by March 7. Also, create a system of “clean clinic” safety protocols to ensure the safety of patients and staff as clinics eventually began seeing patients again for well visits.

How to reach the valley’s Spanish-speaking communities? Partner with the MIRA Bus to begin offering free testing.

Yazmin Almanza with Vail Health tests a patient for COVID-19 Friday at the Dotsero Mobile Home Park in Dotsero. The Mobile Intercultural Resource Alliance (MIRA) bus through Vail health provides free COVID-19 screenings in select neighborhoods where transportation is an issue.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

How to solve the riddle of a lack of available tests and delayed results from outside labs? Work to develop an in-house test that could be turned around quickly.

How to counter the slow-rolling behavioral health crisis that was engulfing the valley as residents struggled with isolation, joblessness, food and financial insecurity, and the stress of kids learning remote? Provide telehealth training for all behavioral health providers, hire 40 new behavioral health specialists and roll out a community-wide scholarship fund to provide those in need who are struggling financially with free access to services.

“We learned a lot about what it means to be resilient, and I think even before COVID, we were already dealing with a lot of those problems,” Cook said.

He described the response to COVID among his staff like any response to a traumatic event: First there was denial, then a sense of sorrow and being overwhelmed.

“I think that actually the initial phases bonded us together and really helped us respond the way that we did,” he said. “What I’ve liked the most, is, you know, Chris and Dr. Bock and even Amanda Veit, our COO, and so many others, were spending countless hours in that command center. But they were collaborating, making decisions, moving quickly and avoiding that bureaucratic sort of hierarchy that can sometimes make people feel like I’m not going to even bother to make this decision because I’m going to have to go through three channels above me.”

Bock said he enjoyed becoming a bit of a local celebrity by filming a number of informational videos with Lindley and others early on in the pandemic that helped soothe some of the fears of the community.

“We would call each other the day before and say, ‘OK, let’s make a video on this. Or let’s make a video on that,’” he said. “It was the topic of the moment that we were trying to educate the community on, and they were effective, remarkably effective. I can’t tell you how many people I would see when I was out and about at the grocery store, or wherever I ventured to, not often, but whenever I ventured out for the needs that I had, people would comment on how much they appreciated that and the personal touch that it brought to their lives and the assurances that they received from them.”

Added Lindley: “You always kind of look at the big health care systems, the big hospitals with all they can do,” he said. “Many of them have great resources, very talented people, great financial capability. But I got to see firsthand what this health care system is for this community and what it can do. And without question, I’m 100 percent certain the Vail Health system has done more in this community than any health care system I’ve heard about or ever dreamed about.”

‘This test sucks’

Mark Joffrion parachuted into a crisis. He started his job as the director of Vail Health’s laboratory in March, smack in the middle of the first wave of COVID-19 cases in the valley.

A soft-spoken Southerner who came to Colorado after stints in labs all across the country, working in Louisiana, Indiana, Texas, Alaska, Oregon, California, Florida and North Carolina, Joffrion described his first weeks and months in his new role as an “everyday scramble” to find solutions to problems that were largely out of his control.

How could the lab get more tests? How could it avoid the growing backlogs for results from state and private labs?

“There was just that need to get results out immediately,” Joffrion said. “We kind of had our hands tied with the testing available and the turnaround times that we were dealing with.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Joffrion and Vail Health officials targeted in-house testing as a solution to both of those problems. Developing a test that worked, however, and being able to turn it around quickly to deliver results in a 24-hour period was a challenge that pushed every tech working in the lab to the brink over the summer and into the fall. As Joffrion and his staff worked tirelessly to find a reliable test, not to mention a manufacturer that could supply it, they coped with the stress that came from repeated phone calls looking for results that too often weren’t available.

Vials of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine wait to be filled into syringes Wednesday in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

The waiting was excruciating.

“It’s tough when we’re not the owners of that answer,” he said. “You know, we know when the results come back to us, but we had no control over when it came. And we were dealing with sometimes two, sometimes three different laboratories to get these results out or get them back to us.”

The lab received a test it could perform internally in April, but the supply was extremely limited, creating the need to horde the tests for the most symptomatic patients. Tests for asymptomatic patients were still being sent to an outside reference lab, with turnaround times taking as long as 10 days.

In May, the lab picked up another test it could perform internally, but again, the volume was extremely limited. Joffrion said he checked the FDA website every day to see which tests had been approved for emergency use and if his team could actually run them in the lab.

By October, he finally found a test that looked like it was doable, and would supply the large testing volume that his team needed to drastically reduce turnaround times.

Stress levels reached a peak, however, in the final weeks of October as techs worked their way through the delicate process of making sure the test actually worked. Joffrion said at one point, in a moment of frustration, one of his techs walked up to him in the lab and pronounced, “This test sucks.”

“But she came and we talked about it and I go back there and she’s just running them like a true professional,” he said, smiling. “She said what she wanted to say, but she got back there and she was running, you know, 60, 80, 100 of these tests at once and just doing an amazing job. That just speaks to the quality of individuals here in this laboratory. They were pushed to that limit, but they knew what we wanted, what our goal was.”

By November, with the test dialed, the lab was finally able to complete all testing in-house, and started receiving samples from collection sites in Summit County and Vail, as well as the Aspen area, becoming a regional testing center.

In November, the lab performed a total of 4,061 COVID tests, compared to just 835 in October and a little more than 200 in September. The lab has since performed more than 20,000 tests since November, often turning over a result in 10 hours or less.

“There were some days it was really doubtful if we could do it, but these are true professionals just stepping up to incredible levels to do what they did,” Joffrion said. “What’s happened in this laboratory is really amazing.”

Coming full circle

Julie Scales is uncomfortable with people making a big deal about her story. During the past 13 months, so many people have gotten sick, she said. So many have died.

Julie Scales, a respiratory therapist at Vail Health, spent seven days on a respirator in a Denver-area hospital after catching COVID-19 in March, 2020. She returned to work a few months later and was the first Eagle County resident to receive a shot of vaccine in early December.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

There have been 22 Eagle County locals who have succumbed to the virus and more than half a million Americans. But talking to Scales’ coworkers at Vail Health, where she works as a lead respiratory therapist, her recovery from the virus is the narrative that often emerges when they talk about the turning points in the pandemic.

March 14, 2020, is the day when COVID-19 became jarringly personal to them. It’s the same day that the local ski resorts shut down and the hospital saw its highest number of patients admitted. One of those admitted was Scales, whose work often brought her into the emergency department.

“It came home pretty hard,” said Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department who oversees the intake of patients.

Earlier that week, Scales had been convinced she had a sinus infection. She had a pounding headache but no respiratory symptoms. Working in a hospital, over the course of a winter, everyone deals with colds and gets run down, and Scales just pushed on with her work. But by Saturday, she was experiencing respiratory symptoms and was admitted to the hospital. A day later, March 15, with her condition worsening, she was transported to the Medical Center of Aurora.

Stephen said seeing Scales being prepped for that ambulance ride down to the Front Range was similar to watching a patient go into the operating room for the last time for organ donation. Scales’ coworkers were legitimately frightened that it would be the last time they’d ever see her.

“It was really, really hard. Of all my ER staff, all of us that worked in the ER the whole time, none of us got COVID that we know of,” he said. “She’s the only one that worked in the ER intermittently, and after she got it, it was like, ‘OK, people, let’s make sure we buddy up.’ We were very, very careful with each other. We protected each other, we had each other’s back and made sure nobody was put at risk if somebody was really sick. We do not rush into that room.”

“It was definitely very scary,” Scales said. “I’m a respiratory therapist. I’ve intubated people on ventilators my whole career, and knowing that that’s where I was headed, I was very scared when I was headed down to Denver.”

Scales spent 10 days in the Aurora hospital, seven of them on a ventilator. She doesn’t remember much. Her daughter, 34, was with her.

“I had my phone, but I didn’t have a charger, so my phone would die,” she said. “My friend told me that I just texted her, and I just said, ‘I’m just going to try and live, OK?’”

After coming off the ventilator, Scales pleaded with doctors to discharge her. She returned home with the help of supplemental oxygen. From the beginning, she was determined to return to work. It took her nearly two months to get back on the job, and it was slow going at first.

“It was very emotional, and still is at times to take care of COVID patients,” she said. “My first ventilator patient that I took care of when I came back was super-emotional. I held it together in the patient’s room. But I had to take the tube out and it was very dramatic.”

Equally dramatic: the scene of Scales being the first Eagle County resident to receive a shot of vaccine on Dec. 16, 2020. That’s when many of Scales’ coworkers said they could finally see the fog start to lift.

Since recovering, Scales has climbed a 14er and marked the one-year anniversary of when she was admitted as a patient by going skiing with some of her coworkers. Ngam was among those who were excited to get out on the hill with her.

Ken Stephen, the charge nurse in Vail Health’s emergency department. He said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

“I just made a comment to my daughter that I would like to ski down the hill instead of go down the hill in an ambulance on the 15th,” said Scales, who spent more than three decades working in hospitals in her home state of Indiana before moving to Colorado a few years ago to be closer to her daughter. “I feel really humbled by everything and I feel bad for the people that didn’t make it because when I was sick, we had a lot of people in the valley that were sick.”

Getting to the other side

How does this story end? Vail Health CEO Will Cook isn’t so sure.

Too often, the COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to as a race. A race to save lives. A race to develop effective vaccines. A race to get back to normal.

Cook said Eagle County, as a whole, has run that race better than most places around the country and the state. The collaboration between the valley’s health care providers, local governments and the community at large has been at the center of that.

The county never plunged into the Level Red restrictions that were a crushing blow to neighboring counties. Schools have managed to remain open for the current academic year while other districts around the state struggled to open and stay open.

The pandemic forced innovation, collaboration and created an opportunity for leaders to emerge, Cook said. But that success story doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and the national tragedy of a pandemic that is still killing as many as 1,000 Americans a day, and has claimed more than 500,000 American lives, continues to overshadow the local narrative.

“I’m still waiting for the impact of this to my management team,” Cook said. “In some of the front-line staff, we’re worried now about what we refer to as hero syndrome, which is that you get so caught up in being on the front lines of dealing with this and being in there for vaccinations where people are emotionally elated and overwhelmed and excited and happy. How do you go back to being the H.R. assistant after that? It’s understandable, though. I don’t think we’ve even seen the end of the impact of this.”

Residents give thumbs up while waiting in line at a vaccine clinic at Vail Health. The county is rapidly approaching 30,000 total dose of vaccine being distributed.
Special to the Daily

Lindley, an eternal optimist, said the last year has flown by for him, and that in a time where charged national debates over the virus, masking, and reopening created deeper fractures in American society, he has been inspired by the community spirit that has carried the day here.

“I think that finger pointing this year has started to decrease and go away,” he said. “And our challenge is, how do we stay in this community collaborative effort going forward? Because we’re going to have other challenges right now. We have a lot of things we have to address. But if we can do it in this response mode I think we’re all in, it’s unbelievable.”

Stephen said hospital workers “saw things that would terrify most people every day without batting an eyelid.”

Making it to the other side of the pandemic, with the county rapidly approaching 30,000 total doses of vaccine distributed, is the light at the end of a tunnel in a trying year.

“They showed up for work and got it done,” Stephen said. “They’re team players, the best team in the land. You could have called in sick. You could have asked not to do it. But not a single one of them did that. We rose to the challenge. We were resilient and we stayed here for the community and took care of them.”

Long after COVID-19 virus is tamed, its behavioral health impacts will remain in Eagle County

Dispatchers at the Vail Public Safety Communications Center have learned first-hand about the behavioral health impacts of COVID-19. They also provide front-line assistance to Eagle County residents who are struggling.
Daily file photo

At his Vail Public Safety Communications Center workstation, dispatcher Fernando Almanza has learned what despair sounds like.

During 2020, the five-year dispatch veteran got a front-line education about how a year of COVID-19 has impacted behavioral health in Eagle County. As Almanza reported for his dispatch shifts during the past 12 months, he heard an evolution of desperation. At first, he noted, people were confused and fearful. They needed help and didn’t know where to turn. Then, as time rolled on, there were waves of anger and depression. Engulfing everything was a haze of fatigue.

“It’s crazy. It has been a year already and it’s been exhausting,” Almanza said. “As a first responder, I am personally getting more calls about how tired people are. It’s hard to keep living this way.”

What’s kept Almanza going through this year of pandemic challenges? It’s been the knowledge that he can actually offer help. When he fields a 911 call from an individual grasping at his or her last hope, Almanza knows he can make a difference.

“I know there is more than one person willing to lend a hand. There are organizations in Eagle County that are more than willing to help,” Almanza said.

Fernando Almanza has witnessed the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on people’s lives over the past year from his workstation at the Vail Public Safety Communications Center. “As a first responder, I am personally getting more calls about how tired people are,” he said. “It’s hard to keep living this way.”
Special to the Daily

He is right. A couple of years ago, behavioral health issues bubbled to the forefront in Eagle County. Vail Health launched Eagle Valley Behavioral Health and voters approved a tax on marijuana products to fund behavioral health services. The Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley was created to provide crisis response and school-based counselors were deployed to work with local students.

Back in 2018, everyone talked about how much behavioral health work needed to happen in Eagle County. Then the global pandemic hit.

It wasn’t that local professionals and programs were wrong about the pre-existing need. It was more a case that they had no framework to contemplate the job that was headed their way. Today, a year after COVID-19 really hit Eagle County, local behavioral health professionals are profoundly grateful that resources were in place to assist local residents weather a radically difficult year. Today, they know that their work is far from done.

Hope at the doorstep

“In terms of the crisis volume there has always been, even in this year, some ebb and flow,” said Teresa Haynes, the clinical director for the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley. “But we are seeing lots more people in crisis and the severity of that crisis is elevated.”

The Hope Center provides counseling on the go. Its response model includes sending counselors directly to people at the moment of crisis to help them weather an immediate emergency. Then the center connects clients with community resources to provide ongoing support.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, we saw a jump in anxiety and panic,” Haynes said. “Then were was something of a settling in that I think we can all relate to.”

Recently the Hope Center has seen an uptick in activity and Haynes believes it’s likely tied to the stress of coping with COVID-19 over the long haul. People have been isolated from one another for months now, dealing with financial insecurities and deprived of their normal emotional support systems. Stressed people are turning to substance abuse and neglecting self-care.

“If you are not sure how you can pay for your family’s dinner tonight, you are not thinking about how you need to get out and take a walk today,” she said. “The things we used to do to feel good about our lives after a hard day are gone.”

The simple act of connecting with someone, talking about how hard it has been to find life-sustaining joy during COVID-19, can help dial back crisis, Haynes said. “One of the things we always say at the Hope Center is that people understand that life is hard, life is challenging at this time and you don’t have to do it alone.”

But under the center’s model, you have to ask for help before you will get it. The Hope Center won’t initiate a contact.

“You don’t have to do much, but you do have to reach out,” Haynes said. That initial decision — to ask for help — can make all the difference.

“When you support someone through a moment of crisis, they can be so thankful that you helped them through. A week later, life can look so different,” Haynes said.

The Hope Center doesn’t promise to solve every caller’s worries. What the program can do is link people to a network of community resources — counselors, assistance programs, government services — that offer residents tools to manage their crisis.

“While we are seeing an increase in call volume and we know that people are struggling, I think that also demonstrates that people know about us and are reaching out for support,” Haynes said. “People want to get through their struggles to the other side. This takes strength and courage and shows resiliency.”

‘Everybody is struggling’

As a whole, the community needed every scrap of resilience it could muster, just to navigate the past 12 months. COVID-19 was only one of the trials that residents faced.

From the Grizzly Creek Fire, to a home explosion that claimed the life of a Gypsum woman, to a murder/suicide in Dotsero, to the loss of three Eagle men in an avalanche, Haynes said the past 12 months have slammed residents with huge emotional blows. The majority of the county’s residents won’t reach out to the Hope Center for crisis assistance, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need help from some source.

“Of course people feel like they can’t take one more thing. Who could?” Haynes said. “Everybody is struggling, across the board, regardless of where you come from our what your economic situation is.”

And it isn’t just grownups who have to cope with COVID-19 impacts.

Level of urgency

“For younger people, their cries for help seem to be reaching more of a level of urgency,” Haynes said. “The younger kids aren’t as aware but the older kids are impacted. They feel the difference.”

Since 2018, the Hope Center has worked with Eagle County School District to place behavioral health counselors in local schools. Emily Smith, whose name has been changed in this story to protect student privacy, is one of those school-based professionals.

Before she joined the school program, Smith was a therapist for 11 years. Since 2018, she has worked with middle school kids.

Like other educators, Smith and the school-based counselors did their work remotely to finish out the 2019-2020 school year. Although there have been class quarantines and other difficulties, local schools have remained open this school year.

Local kids haven’t been immune from the behavioral health impacts of COVID-19. “For younger people, their cries for help seem to be reaching more of a level of urgency,” said Teresa Haynes, clinical director for the Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley.
Photo provided by Vail Health

“Kids definitely felt the stress. In the early days of the pandemic, during the stay-at-home order, we worked really hard to provide support for students as best we could,” she said. “But there were some kids we just couldn’t keep in contact with. Just knowing that, for some of our students, school can feel like a place of safety and that we couldn’t check on them with our own eyes, it was difficult.”

Smith echoed Haynes’ comments about how, as the months pass, the tragedies kept piling on.

“In our community, we have gone through a lot in addition to COVID,” she said. “This has just been a really rough year.”

But Smith believes having the structure of a school year, even one beset with the disruptions that COVID-19 presented, has been an important educational and emotional touchstone for kids.

“That’s why we have kids at school. We know they learn best there,” she said. Those lessons extend beyond the set curriculum and the simple act of being together is one of school’s most important tutorials

Social contact is lifeblood for many kids, especially for preteens and teens. When they were cut off from physical contact, they turned to social media to connect with peers. Smith acknowledged that led to a whole other set of issues.

“Cyber issues were a difficulty before COVID and they have continued to be a difficulty,” she said.

COVID-19 meant a whole slew of new challenges for teachers, parents and counselors to keep children engaged during a trying year where essential social interaction was limited.
Unsplash image

Some kids embraced remote learning, Smith added. “But students weren’t mastering some social skills that way. I had one student say she likes wearing her mask because she is not so self-conscious around her peers. But what is that going to look like in the future?”

COVID-19 meant a whole slew of new challenges for kids, teachers and counselors, but as she looks back on the past year, Smith is proud of the work educators have done.

“From last March to now, we have all been in this together. It isn’t like one student is dealing with it and another isn’t,” Smith said. “We have had a great team. We have all pulled together and everyone showed up for kids.”

Smith hopes that when COVID-19 becomes part of our past instead of our present, that level of commitment will have made all the difference.

“I always try to come from that place of hope. I believe kids are resilient,” she said.

Local behavioral health professionals hope the community, as a whole, is as resilient as its youngest members.

COVID-19 touched everything

During the past 12 months, COVID-19 has affected virtually every part of our lives, noted Casey Wolfington, the community behavioral health director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.

“It touched our schools and touched our work and even touched how we engage in the grocery store,” she said. “Then we started to realize that everything we were doing to protect ourselves from the virus was impacting our behavioral health.”

“When there is an acute trauma, like COVID-19, what we do is respond to the immediate threat,” Wolfington said. “But the more we find out about COVID, the more we see its behavioral health impacts. Although all this COVID progress has been made, it’s been made in all these other areas.”

Engaging with other people, having a social support system, enjoying collective experiences, spending time with friends — those are all vital activities that help people manage their stress. COVID-19 meant those vital activities became taboo.

“Over the past 12 months, we have had more admissions at Vail Health for issues related to substance abuse and addiction than we have had for COVID-19,” Wolfington said. “That is the fallout of isolation. That also shows us this (substance abuse) is an epidemic that is so prevalent in our community that it could not even be surpassed by a pandemic.”

Isolation and stress brought on by the pandemic has led to increased substance abuse. “Over the past 12 months, we have had more admissions at Vail Health for issues related to substance abuse and addiction than we have had for COVID-19,” said Casey Wolfington, the community behavioral health director for Eagle Valley Behavioral Health.
Liz Copan/Summit Daily News file photo

That’s just one of the disturbing trends associated with life during COVID-19.

“We are seeing dramatic increases in cases of domestic violence and financial hardships in families, and also a significant decrease in rates of child abuse, when historically those three things all rise and fall together,” Wolfington said.

If child abuse numbers fall when domestic abuse and family financial hardship number rise, it’s very unlikely that fewer kids are being abused or neglected, Wolfington explained. Instead, the likely scenario is that child abuse incidents are not being discovered and reported. That’s been one of Wolfington’s most pervasive worries during the past year.

“It’s just been so tense, all around,” said Wolfington. “People are still anxious. They are hesitant and they don’t want to be blindsided by some other surprise out there.”

Last spring, officials at Vail Health knew they needed to step up and help locals navigate the COVID-19 misery miasma. So, they decided to remove one of the biggest obstacles for people who need behavioral health services and, months before its intended rollout, Olivia’s Fund debuted.

By the numbers …

Hope Center of the Eagle River Valley

1,482 — Total number of mobile crisis calls in 2019

2,172 — Total number of mobile crisis calls in 2020

469 — Total number of mobile crisis calls year-to-date in 2021

School Based Counselors

2,969 — Total number of interactions through March 1 during the 2019-2020 term

4,314 — Total number of interactions through March 1 during thee 2020-21 term

Vail Health

96 — Total number of COVID-19 patients admitted since the pandemic began

495 — Number of emergency room substance abuse patients in 2020

91 — Number of emergency room substance abuse patients year-to-date in 2021

Olivia’s Fund

237 — Number of people who have participated in the program since its debut in June 2020

490 — Number of therapy sessions to date

Olivia’s Fund

Named in honor of a local 13-year old girl who died by suicide in 2018, Olivia’s Fund provides financial assistance to anyone who lives or works in Eagle County to help pay for mental health and/or substance abuse services for up to six sessions per person per year. During the past 12 months, 237 local residents have participated in the program.

“What I have heard is Olivia’s Fund made one thing certain for our community. People could access behavioral health services without worrying about their ability to pay,” Wolfington said. “There is nothing more difficult than when a person needs help but can’t get it because of a financial barrier. What I keep hearing from colleagues who aren’t in Eagle County is they see there is need, but they just continue to see barriers to access.”

Wolfington noted there’s another area where aggressive local response is helping to stem not only the behavioral health impacts of COVID-19 but also the virus itself — the expansive local vaccination effort.

Mark Novak, Vail’s fire chief, receives his COVID-19 vaccination at Vail Health. The expanding vaccination effort is providing new hope after a year of global pandemic.
Dominique Taylor/Special to the Daily

As of this week — more than 25,000 doses of Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine have been shot into local arms.

“My favorite part of working the vaccination clinics is hearing what hope that vaccine is bringing,” Wolfington said. “People say things like ‘This will allow me to see my granddaughter for the first time in a year.’ It is bringing us the possibility that those contacts can happen. We didn’t know when that was going to be possible before vaccine distribution.”

In it together

On the day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, when COVID-19 ceases to be a public health threat, Wolfington knows that the behavioral health effects of the disease will linger. The long-term impacts of the pandemic on our mental well-being is a challenge for today and for our future, she noted, but she also believes the challenge of addressing COVID-19 itself has set up the means to move forward.

“I feel like there is more interconnection in our community than ever before,” Wolfington said. “Collectively we feel like we are truly a community.”

Back at the dispatch center, Almanza agrees. He shares that assurance immediately when he makes contact with a caller in distress.

“I tell them we are in this together,” he said.

Keeping the lights on: How Eagle County businesses weathered a pandemic year

A customer picks up a to-go order at the Grand Ave. Grill Tuesday in Eagle. The restaurant put in a drive-through window within days of the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, and opened indoor seating a couple weeks ago.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Vail’s Sitzmark Lodge keeps its doors open all year, even through quiet spells in the spring and fall. That changed in a big way just about one year ago.

Following the March 14 shutdown of Vail Resorts’ North American ski areas and a virtual shutdown of the state’s lodging industry, the Sitzmark closed for two-and-a-half months, starting right in one of Vail’s busiest months.

“It was really hard,” Sitzmark General Manager Jeanne Fritch said. Coming back has been hard, too.

Even before the shutdown, Fritch made the hard decision to stop the hotel’s weekly wine party for guests. Continental breakfasts, usually a time for guests to chat before starting a ski day, turned into grab-and-go bags. Furniture disappeared from the lobby, and cleaning protocols were quickly ramped up.

“We tried to provide a warm, friendly atmosphere, but at a distance,” Fritch said.

In Eagle, Grand Ave. Grill co-owner Chris Ryan spent a post-shutdown morning sitting in the empty north dining room of the restaurant.

“I looked like a ghost — I was sick,” Ryan said.

But inspiration struck while Ryan was sitting in that empty room.

“I said to my boyfriend, ‘We have to turn these (north-facing) windows into a drive-through,’” Ryan recalled.

With the help of her brother and boyfriend, Ryan had the work done in just a couple of days. Those windows, just off U.S. Highway 6 through Eagle, “worked perfectly,” Ryan said.

The Grand Ave Grill in Eagle offers walk-up and drive-through ordering windows.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Once the windows opened, a skeleton crew of Ryan and three other people started filling orders.

“It was just nuts,” she said.

Evolving and adapting

Fritch and Ryan are just two of many, many local business owners whose businesses have had to evolve, or change entirely, to survive a year of shutdowns, cancellations and occupancy restrictions.

Grant Smith and his wife had owned Edwards’ Riverwalk Theater for not quite two years when the pandemic shut down the movie business.

“It’s been a rough road,” he acknowledged.

When the Riverwalk Theater in Edwards had to stop showing movies in 2020, owner Grant Smith accelerated plans already in place to build the establishment’s walk-up food and beverage business.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Fill & Refill in Edwards is a place for people to refill soap, cleaners and other products instead of buying packaging with product. Allison Burgund had opened the store in the fall of 2019, just a few months before public health orders shuttered many “nonessential” businesses.

“We closed down for two months,” Burgund said. “It was hugely upsetting, but it didn’t crush us.”

Burgund was able to stay closed for a while because of low overhead.

“The first shop was basically the size of a closet,” she said.

When the shop reopened, the biggest problem came from a scrambled global supply chain.

The glass bottles Fill & Refill customers use were sold out, due largely to demand for bottles for hand sanitizer, Burgund said.

In Vail, James Deighan watched his business, Highline Sports and Entertainment, evaporate as postponed events were ultimately canceled. By July, Deighan had furloughed most of his staff.

“We didn’t know what the future held,” Deighan said. Times called for a “complete makeover,” he said

The comeback

That makeover became Highline Medical Solutions, which focuses on rapid COVID-19 testing and now, virus distribution.

That business uses “all the skill sets, expertise, relationships and processes we put in place for 25 years,” Deighan said.

Experience in the event promotion world could transfer to managing testing stations. The switch happened relatively quickly as the events business wound down over the course of several months.

“Concierge” testing services are provided to businesses, hotels and condominium complexes. Testing has evolved into providing vaccine administration all over the state.

Deighan said his company has been talking to officials in Texas, Arizona and other states about managing vaccination sites.

“For now, we’re rocking and rolling in our home state of Colorado,” Deighan said.

During an interview in the summer of 2020, Deighan said he was “on the verge of tears.” Today, he said, he’s close to tears of joy.

“At Highline for 25 years, we put smiles on people’s faces,” Deighan said. “Now it’s smiles, and sighs of relief.”

Like so many other businesses, Smith is still working hard to keep the Riverwalk up and running.

“My general mindset is to focus on what I can do — that’s really important for me as a business person,” Smith said. What he could do was put more emphasis on changes already in progress.

Before the pandemic hit, Smith was moving toward offering coffee, soft-serve ice cream and other non-movie services in Edwards. Since then, the Riverwalk has focused more on food. Gradually relaxed public health orders also allow a limited number of people in for first-run movies, which have started to trickle into the distribution pipeline.

“It’s getting better,” Smith said, adding that a recent weekend was the theater’s busiest in a year.

Slowly but surely, moviegoers have returned to the Riverwalk Theater in Edwards.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

“It’s great to see people coming into the theater,” Smith said. “We have a lot of room for people to spread out.”

While COVID-19 and its variants are still very much with us, Grant said people seem more comfortable spending time inside. Combining that with good food, including barbecue and pizza, things seem to be improving, he said.

At the Grand Ave. Grill, Ryan said the drive-up window led last summer to walk-up window and outdoor patio. She’s now looking into opening up a limited number of tables inside the restaurant, although the thought of having only 12 tables now isn’t realistic.

What will stick?

At the Grand Ave. Grill, the drive-up window may stick, even when the restaurant can host guests inside.

“Maybe we’ll just stay this way,” Ryan said. “It could be better.”

Burgund said Fill & Refill’s popularity continues to surge. The shop is now in a larger space, and customers are buying product, and lots of it.

Burgund noted that the store goes through a 33-gallon barrel of Boulder Clean Laundry Soap about every 10 days.

“That’s a lot of plastic saved,” she said.

At the Sitzmark, Fritch said as people are gradually able to gather in the lobby, and guests can tell housekeepers whether or not they’re wanted in a room, the hotel’s relaxed reservation processes will probably stick around, at least for some time.

“We try to think from a guest’s point of view,” she said. That means being flexible with either holding deposits until a guest can visit, or, in some cases when it’s needed, providing refunds.

It’s all part of maintaining guest loyalty, she said, adding that loyal guests often book the same week every year because of friends they’ve made on previous stays.

Guests are often old friends, Fritch said. “One of the attributes of a mom and pop shop is (guests) getting to know mom and pop,” she added.

A relentless school year for educators, students and parents

Eagle County Schools' reopening plan for this school year involved a slew of pandemic year normalities — revised class schedules, student cohorts, masks, social distancing and even temperature checks.
Special to the Daily

Melisa Rewold-Thuon, assistant superintendent for Eagle County Schools, remembers spending her birthday at the emergency school board meeting. “It’s a birthday I will always remember,” she said of March 13, 2020.

That Friday evening the district made an unprecedented announcement. It would close 17 schools and switch to remote learning for three weeks starting Tuesday, just three days later.

The news that kids would be learning from home because of the rapidly-evolving pandemic, exactly one week after Eagle County’s first confirmed coronavirus infection, reverberated throughout the county’s households and businesses.

“I was hoping for the best, but also worrying, what if we have a huge outbreak?” Rewold-Thuon said of the uncertain weeks leading up to the district’s announcement, when the shadow of the pandemic spread and darkened, but had not yet upended life. “I do remember thinking, ‘This is not going to be good, I have a feeling,’” Rewold-Thuon said.

The announcement set off a whirlwind for the district, for its bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, teachers, principals and administrators, and for roughly 6,500 students and their parents. Rewold-Thuon’s three kids would be among those now learning from home.

The district took just three days to transition its longstanding model of classroom-based instruction to the virtual world. Later in the following week, Gov. Jared Polis would order all schools in the state to close as the virus continued to spread to an extent not fully known because of lagging testing capacity.

‘The learning curve was exponential’

“Organized chaos.” That’s how Kim Biniecki, an eighth grade math teacher at Homestake Peak School and a mother of two students in the district, remembers that weekend.


A photo of Ms. Fox and Ms. Mekon's kindergarten class, working online last school year after Eagle County Schools transitioned to remote learning in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. Remote learning would last through the end of the school year.
Special to the Daily

Teachers rapidly trained on technologies and online platforms that fortunately had already started to be put in place in years prior, at least in some capacity. The district worked to ensure students and teachers could interact through their computers, share materials, work through glitches, and keep everyone from kindergartners to seniors engaged and learning and safe.

“The district turned on a dime. Teachers just completely flipped their instruction and how they do things,” Biniecki said. “I think everyone was in shock. For most of us, me included, because I was not tech savvy, the learning curve was exponential.”

The district attempted to put a device in the hands of every student who needed one. Hot spots were handed out and set up. Property managers and companies helped provide internet to people who couldn’t afford it. Teachers reached out to students and to their parents, who were facing widely varying circumstances, asking how they could help.

With schools closed and students learning remotely last year, school staff and volunteers set up distribution sites for parents to pick up a lunch for students.
Special to the Daily

“Every day was fixing something that wasn’t working right, or tweaking what the plan was, but also trying to maintain consistency so kids knew what was going on,” Biniecki said.

Keeping students fed was another pressing matter. Job losses were mounting and store shelves were often picked bare. The district set up sites for people to pick up lunches for students. Hotels, restaurants and other partners contributed food, trailers and tents. Staff and volunteers handed out meals, and delivered them to families who could not get to the sites.


Matthew Abramowitz, the principal at Edwards Elementary School, and his son, Nicko, recite the pledge of allegiance with other students during remote learning last school year.
Special to the Daily

“We just figured it out,” said Chris Delsordo, the nutrition services director for the district. “Everyone came together. We had a lot of people helping us get food to the community. It feels like we just took it and ran with it. You really felt part of a team. You weren’t on an island.”

A relentless year

After the hectic three-day weekend, a strange new world of public K-12 education without schools or classrooms was up and running.

“We went into hyper-drive as an organization,” said Dan Dougherty, spokesman for Eagle County Schools. “That was a busy and challenging weekend. But it was just the beginning of a relentless year. It was a sign of things to come.”

In all the uncertainty characteristic of the pandemic, remote learning would last for three weeks, then for six weeks, and finally for the rest of the school year. Joseph Marino said the reality hit him and his fourth-grade students at Eagle Valley Elementary School hardest when an annual class camping trip got canceled that April.

With the shift to remote learning, Marino questioned if he could be effective from the other side of a computer screen. But he worked to engage his 10-year-old distance learners as much as he could — even going back into the closed school to get classroom props to use from home. In a sign of the times, he wore two face masks, a face shield and gloves as he ventured in to retrieve the items.

One small but significant benefit: The switch to remote learning happened near the school year’s end, after students and teachers had gotten to know each other.

“We broke out the moose puppet, we did virtual interviews, we were were making videos together to share with other students, we had birthday celebrations, we sang songs. We still laughed,” Marino said. “It was amazing. You sensed the kids understood the limitations that Mr. Marino was working under, and it was amazing how they went along with it.”

The class even had a virtual campout. “We invited them to set up tents in their backyards, bring their computer or phone into the tent, and we all got together and had a virtual camping trip,” Marino said. “Come 8 p.m. sharp, we all howled at the moon together as a class. We tried to make lemons into lemonade.”

Getting back in classrooms

Sports, clubs and activities were on hold. Proms were canceled and graduations went virtual or were reimagined as social distancing measures and restrictions on gatherings took hold and remained in effect. Some students had a snow-day sort of feeling as schools initially closed.


The coronavirus pandemic upended life for last year's high school seniors, canceling prom and graduations. Schools got creative, hosting virtual ceremonies and drive-through processions for graduates to get their diplomas.
Special to the Daily

“But over the next couple weeks that became pretty brutal. They missed routines, each other, their social interactions,” said David Cope, a social studies teacher and coach at Battle Mountain High School. “We could teach them who Andrew Jackson is online, but they missed out on everything else that makes school, school. Poor kids didn’t get a senior year. That’s never really happened to anybody before.”

High schools and middle schools got creative, holding graduation ceremonies and celebrations virtually. Diplomas were handed out to students in drive-through processions. “All the teachers were out there, set up with lawn chairs like a little tailgate party. It was good to see the kids, bid them farewell, wish them luck,” Cope said. “It was bizarre, but in a way it was really nice.”

Summer brought more challenges as the pandemic wore on with its ever-fluctuating infection rates and forecasts. What consistently grew was the realization that remote learning was far from ideal, and that the economy would struggle to recover as long as kids were stuck learning from home.

Eric Mandeville, principal at Eagle Valley Middle School, demonstrates the six-foot social distancing guidelines with students at the start of this school year, as Eagle County Schools reopened classrooms for a "hybrid schedule" of in-person instruction.
Special to the Daily

“The school schedule is the foundation of the economy, what allows parents to go out and work,” Dougherty said. “It became really clear and obvious, beyond all the educational, social and emotional benefits of school for students, that the economic impact of having schools open is paramount.”

After running through what seemed like millions of scenarios, the district didn’t know it would be able to reopen its classrooms until August. The year’s start was delayed by a week to iron out logistics and continue to train teachers to operate in a new “hybrid model” with both in-person and remote instruction.

“We were prepared to go either way,” Superintendent Philip Qualman said. “It was like standing at the top of a ski run. We saw different lines, but didn’t know which one we were going to take until the last minute — if we are going to have to huck a cliff or get a nice groomer.”

Students make their way into Avon Elementary School for the first day of school in August. Masks and social distancing were part of the new protocol.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

Under the model, elementary and middle school students split into cohorts for class four days a week, with remote learning Wednesdays so teachers have a day for planning. High schools also split into groups to attend class two days a week, with remote learning the other days.

Some students, however, have continued to attend school remotely. That means many teachers must balance the needs of kids in class and other kids on computers.

Gaining momentum

For Marino, who is teaching kindergarten this year, that means moving the laptops with the one to two remote students around the classroom, keeping them engaged and involved, learning, and interacting with other students.

Teachers, students and families must also be ready to shift back to remote learning on short notice as quarantines are required because of exposures or infections — something the district has tracked daily on its website through a COVID dashboard.

Savannah Havens, at Eagle Valley Elementary, packs up her laptop during a day of in-person instruction.
Special to the Daily

“To me, the word ‘hybrid’ doesn’t even begin to explain the kind of flexibility required for teachers and students and families,” said Mary Ann Stavney, the learning and instruction specialist for Eagle County Schools. “I remember 10 years ago, 20 years ago, people saying that teaching is really challenging. Really, it was kind of easy compared to this.”

No one knew if the model would be able to last for two weeks or two months before everyone was sent home again. Infection and quarantine levels increased over the winter holidays and again before the February break, but the schools have managed to remain open.

It’s all taken a toll on staff, parents, students and learning. The district missed academic achievement goals in its elementary schools during remote learning, but mid-year measures are showing a rebound, district officials said. High schools have seen significantly more failing grades, and the district plans a wide variety of engagement and credit recovery programs.

People are also still struggling with job losses, financial hardships, stress and mental health challenges, and all the impacts those can have on families and students.

But around her birthday this year — a weekend without an emergency school board meeting — as more and more school staff and community residents are being vaccinated against the coronavirus, and as students remain in class, Rewold-Thuon said she’s seeing more light and hope on the horizon.

Yet as ever with the pandemic, uncertainty remains. There are still a couple months left this school year for students, teachers and families to manage and work through. School principals are still contact tracing COVID cases and sending out quarantine notices. There are also unanswered questions about what happens with prom and graduation this year — the district is looking at ways to hold them, but nothing has been finalized yet — and whether students will have to keep wearing masks in class next year.

But one exhausting year later, a marathon pandemic that could have ripped the school district and the community apart at the seams has instead left them positioned to emerge from a difficult and wearying year — albeit one with many bright spots and triumphs to celebrate — with the momentum to move forward together.

Eagle County’s public schools over the past year are a tale of the entire community experiencing and overcoming hardship together, Dougherty said. “Our folks really laid it on the line to do the best possible for the most possible. Not trying to say it was all roses and rainbows, to the contrary, every day has been difficult and continues to be hard, but boy have there been bright moments in all this sacrifice.”

Continued togetherness and partnership, evidenced during a time known for social distancing and its isolating impacts, is the only thing that has allowed Eagle County’s schools to reopen and stay open, with unprecedented collaboration between public health, district leaders, parents, students, principals and teachers, Qualman said. “There’s no way that any one of those groups could have been successful if we were not all working together through this.”

Peterson: Lights in the darkness

When did the world change? The shutdown of our local ski resorts a year ago is the line of demarcation for most of us here in Eagle County.

When the lifts stopped spinning on March 14, 2020, just eight days after Eagle County’s first confirmed COVID-19 case, it sent the valley’s tourism-based economy into free fall. Spring break trips were quickly scrapped. Seasonal Vail Resorts workers were cast into limbo before eventually being told to vacate their housing, if able, by county order. Restaurants, hotels and local retailers saw business dry up overnight during one of the busiest months of the season.

Parents, like myself, might say that the shock to the system came one day earlier, on March 13, when schools around the valley temporarily closed to stop the spread of the virus. The move soon became permanent and the abrupt transition to remote learning forced teachers, students and parents into crisis management mode to salvage the spring semester.

Our individual orbits had permanently shifted in just the course of a few days, the result of a mysterious virus from the other side of the globe crashing hard into our idyllic valley.

The year that followed has been the longest that any of us can remember. COVID life, at least in those first few months, crawled along. After the runs on grocery stores for toilet paper, hand sanitizer and essentials, we went into isolation — connected to the rest of the world mostly through our phones and computers.

In that remoteness, we were forced to come to terms with loss. There were the immense losses, like the death of local après-ski icon Rod Powell, who became Eagle County’s first COVID-19 victim on March 21. In the past 12 months, the virus has claimed 22 locals in the county. There were also the small losses — from not being able to see loved ones in person, out of caution, to our daily routines being altered at every turn by the virus.

Our high school seniors lost things that they’ll never get back — a final spring sports season, a spring play, as well as the rites of passage of prom and a traditional commencement ceremony.

We eventually emerged from the governor’s stay-at-home and safer-at-home orders for a summer that was anything but normal. In a valley that doesn’t do anything small, every big event had been wiped off the calendar.

Through it all, amid charged national debates over the virus, masking, reopening and a national reawakening to racial injustice, as well as a deeply polarizing election season that reached a historic flash point with the Capitol riot, we mostly stuck together as a community. We did so while fighting like hell to claw back some sense of normalcy — from restaurants reopening at lower capacities to live events returning on a much smaller scale to students and teachers returning to classrooms in the fall, masked, and ready to learn.

The reopening of our local mountains in November, albeit with a scrutinized reservation system in place, was a pivotal moment in our comeback. And, with the arrival of vaccines in the final days of 2020, the fog of the pandemic truly started to lift.

To mark the anniversary of our local mountains shutting down a year ago this week, the Vail Daily is launching a seven-part series called “Shining Through” that takes a hard look at how we got to this point.

My idea for the series was simple: Find the ordinary people in our valley who were faced with extraordinary circumstances and who set the tone for our community’s narrative in this crisis. They’re the unsung heroes who kept the economy up and running, kept us protected, kept our kids learning and kept us out of Level Red restrictions while other neighboring counties took that plunge.

The reporting journey begins with John LaConte’s deeply reported account on the uphill battle to save the current ski season, and the dichotomy of criticism and praise that Vail Resorts faced as it navigated a once-in-a-century global crisis.

On Tuesday, Tom Lotshaw reports on the “Herculean effort” that went into getting teachers and students back into schools and keeping them open. On Wednesday, Scott Miller reports on how local businesses survived the year with equal parts determination and innovation. On Thursday, Pam Boyd reports on how the valley’s behavioral health professionals worked overtime to combat the second-order consequences brought on by joblessness, isolation and stress. On Friday, I’ll report on how the valley’s health care system prepared for the pandemic and navigated an array of logistical challenges. On Saturday, Ross Leonhart reports on how event organizers and promoters got creative to bring back entertainment after the virus completely wiped out large gatherings.

We’ll end the series with a look back at how the Vail Daily reported on our community over the past year that will include some testimonials from our news team. We’ll write about what we did well and what we could have done better, in hindsight, and the road ahead.

Our hope, with this series, is to bring light to some of the untold stories of this past year that are essential to understanding how we, as a community, managed to navigate this crisis better than most places. There are heroes among us, lights who shined bright this year through the darkness, and you’ll get to meet some of them along the way.

Please contact me at npeterson@vaildaily.com if you have questions or comments about the series, and as always, we would welcome letters to the editor in response to our reporting.

When the lifts stopped spinning: Inside Vail Resorts’ toughest year

A photo from the Gondola One in Vail on liftline on March 13, 2020. A day later, guests would learn that Vail Resorts planned to shut down its lifts.
John LaConte photo.

On March 14, 2020, when Vail Resorts announced it would be closing its North American ski resorts for a week, some started to wonder if the ski areas would reopen at all.

A few days later, when Vail Resorts announced its mountains would remain closed, some started to wonder if the ski areas could even pull off this season. The fight to open for 2020-21 began right then and there, and it was an uphill battle the whole way.

Kyle Miner was working for Vail Resorts as a shop supervisor at the time, it was his first season in Vail. The 23-year-old came to the area hoping for an opportunity to start a new life out West. He picked the wrong year.

Miner was one of thousands of workers laid off, and locally, he was one of hundreds who was told to leave his employee housing by both Vail Resorts and Eagle County. He protested and was told he would be allowed to stay until October 30.

Others were not as fortunate.

Coming Tuesday: ‘A Herculean effort’ at local schools

Tim McMahon was working at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek at the time. He said he witnessed a mad scramble of workers packing into their cars and hitting the road after being told they had 10 days to leave.

The effort made him so mad that he decided to write a protest sign, calling attention to the mass eviction that had just taken place. On March 27, McMahon hiked up Beaver Creek Mountain and placed the sign in front of the resort’s snowstake sign for all to see.

“10 days to vacate,” it read.

A March 2020 screen grab from Beaver Creek's snowstake camera depicting activity from March 27. On March 17, Vail employees were told they could stay in employee housing until March 27 if needed.

At the time, it seemed like an incredibly bad bit of media for Vail Resorts — its own snowstake camera used to broadcast the strife that the publicly traded company’s namesake region was experiencing. But in looking back now, McMahon’s sign barely holds a candle to all the stories that would follow.

Dichotomy of criticism, praise

The next big shoe to drop called into question Vail Resorts’ ability to pay back its debt, as the company received less-than-investment grade ratings from Moody’s and S&P in April. Vail Resorts had announced an effort to take on an additional $600 million in debt by issuing cash bonds; Moody’s gave the company a B2 rating, S&P Global Ratings a BB.

“The negative rating outlook reflects leverage above 4x in fiscal 2020 due to property closures and our expectation that Vail’s operating performance may continue to be impacted in fiscal 2021 as a result of decreased destination travel and consumer spending,” S&P wrote in its report.

A few months later, yet another bit of controversial news — Vail Resorts announced it would be using a reservations system to allow guests to access the mountains. The company’s phone lines blew up, and callers faced cues in the thousands.

At the same time, however, Vail Resorts was learning a great deal about what it would take to operate its ski areas during a pandemic. Its Australian resorts opened for the winter season in June, reservations system in place, giving the company valuable insight on what the North American season might look like later that year.

Vail Resorts shuttered operations at two of its three Australian properties — Mount Hotham and Falls Creek — by July, however, in the wake of a lockdown in Melbourne.

“A key lesson was that it was critical for us to dial in the capacity of the resort,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said of the Australian experience.

Vail Mountain opened to summer traffic in July, and businesses were bouncing back. Local snowboard manufacturer Weston Backcountry took a risk on manufacturing a full run of a newly-designed snowboard — an oddly shaped, shorter than normal offering called the Hatchet — saying it wasn’t sure if it would sell, but that the company really wanted to see the new design in action. Every last Hatchet sold from every retailer in the state within weeks of receiving it, which was still a full month before the snow began to fall. Outdoor retailers were having their biggest season on record due to the large number of people fleeing the more crowded cities.

But those crowds were coming to the mountains like never before, and while Vail Resorts received criticism from some regarding their reservations plans for the upcoming season, if the crowds in town over the summer served as any indicator, it was going to be a busy winter, as well. Along with the criticism, Vail Resorts was also receiving praise for instituting crowd control measures through its reservations system.

“Appreciate the clarity and the well thought out process,” said Twitter user Paul Atkins.

Workers exit Vail Mountain on Saturday, March 14, after receiving word the mountain would shut down for a week. The shutdown became permanent a few days later.
John LaConte

This dichotomy of praise and criticism had become commonplace for Vail Resorts. The company received praise from the governor for making the decision to shut down in March, while receiving criticism from skiers who said the sport could be done safely without a need for shutdown. Later, the company received both praise and criticism for offering Epic Pass purchasers from 2019-20 credits of up to 80% off the purchase of a 2020-21 pass.

“Glad you came through and did the right thing,” Vermont snowboarder Chris Stabile said of the offering.

“We have 4 day passes that we never used because we were going spring break. I feel we should receive a 100% credit to use next year on the mountain” said Chicago skier Kristie McCarthy.

“People are going to complain no matter what they do,” said Jim Pavelich with the Northside Cafe in Avon.

Sticking it out

On top of pandemic restrictions from the state was a unique labor environment, in which Vail Resorts could not access the international visa workers who often come for a season. But the closures across the travel and leisure sector ended up creating a different kind of labor opportunity for Vail Resorts. The company found more U.S. workers who were interested in taking jobs at ski resort properties, as other jobs in travel and leisure were scarce.

Despite the unique circumstances, the 2020-2021 season at Vail has tracked like many others, with operations managers seeing a robust starting staff whittled down to the hearty few who remain until April. The job is hard and the hours are harder.

A shift of cat operators shows up every day from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m., and they then turn it over to a graveyard shift of workers who groom from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m. A lot of people try out the job and realize it’s not for them.

A new maze is set out to help people observe distancing practices on Opening Day at Vail on Nov. 20, 2020. In the span of about eight months, Vail Resorts had to reimagine many aspects of its resort operations to open and stay open during a global pandemic.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaidaily.com

One Vail employee said there were about 30 cat operators hired to start this season, but now that they have the mountain fully open with the most ground to cover, less than a dozen are still on the job.

The turnover makes duties more difficult for the diehards who remain, but for them, adapting to changing staff levels is part of it. The people who have been at Vail for years are used to the turnover, and some of them thrive on the pressure it creates.

The snowmaking departments at Vail and Beaver Creek have a handful of people who care deeply about the art (and science) behind the craft, but those departments also hire a lot of people who won’t make it to the end of the year. Within, there is a core group of folks who you have to thank for readying the mountains for each season.

Keep the lifts spinning

A lot of those people like working for Vail Mountain because they have a chance to use the latest and greatest. In 2019, the mountain installed 400 new snowmaking cannons with onboard weather systems that read temperature and humidity, and it’s not uncommon for a snowcat manufacturer to call on Vail crews to demo new equipment. Operating a state-of-the-art snowcat with features like electronic snow depth readings, so you don’t have to go out and probe the snow yourself, keeps the job exciting for operators.

And once the ski day begins, there’s never a dull moment for patrollers who save lives on a routine basis. Colorado skier Todd Ermantraut is more excited than ever to be on the mountain this season — he’s having a small gathering on Vail Mountain on March 20 to celebrate his return to skiing after patrollers dragged him out of trees in Earl’s Bowl with a broken femur a couple of years ago.

“Vail Ski Patrol saved my life,” he said.

This season, Ermantraut is happy to be out at all, and that’s the sentiment among a lot of skiers, according to ski patrollers.

One patroller said, in general, that people want to feel that skiing is a relatively safe sport, whether its getting transported safely to the hospital following an injury, or avoiding coronavirus while they’re in town. People seem to be going the extra mile this year to follow the safety guidelines while they’re on the mountain, he said.

A ski patroller at Beaver Creek Mountain on Feb. 4, 2021
Photo by Ryan Nott

Aside from the obvious changes related to masks and distancing, for operations and ski patrol, this year isn’t all that much different.

But for lift ticket scanners, who are often the very first workers a guest encounters, this season has been an all-new experience. Those workers’ job duties now include enforcement on the resorts’ new face coverings policy, something that isn’t welcome by all guests.

Beaver Creek ticket scanner Renee Higuera said she liked her job, before this season.

Higuera said Beaver Creek workers were diligent in enforcing the rules, and most people took to them without issue, but those who didn’t were much harder to deal with than the average guest who might have an issue with something at Beaver Creek.

Many times, the policy was to simply accept it, Higuera said.

“I’d get harassed by guests, and I just wouldn’t say anything about it,” she said.

Everyone was in agreement — they wanted the lifts to keep spinning.

“You just gotta keep your head down and do your job,” a person in Vail operations told me.

Cut for catching COVID

Higuera ended up catching COVID-19 in January. She received her positive test result on Jan. 12.

She said she was not able to trace where it came from, but her roommates all had it, as well. One of the roommates had a boyfriend, and he also became infected.

Higuera and her roommates were living in Vail Resorts employee housing at the Tarnes. They were moved to an isolation unit, where they were told they had to remain in the unit together.

“I had no choice,” she said.

Higuera’s roommate’s boyfriend came by to bring food and supplies to Higuera’s roommate, and someone snapped a photo of him doing so. Higuera and her roommates were evicted from their apartment and fired as a result of the violation.

“It had nothing to do with me,” Higuera said.

But she was told, “If one goes down, the rest of you go down too. It’s guilt by association,” she said.

Higuera is upset with her situation, saying she was treated unfairly, and feels she was fired for getting COVID-19.

In talking to her about this, the conversation inevitably leads to a familiar conclusion in an at-will employment state: “It sucks, but what can you do about it?”

Higuera and I talked a bit about Tim McMahon.

Like Higuera, last season was McMahon’s first year in Beaver Creek. He also grew upset with the company after seeing employees getting evicted from employee housing during the height of the panic, and came to the same conclusion – there’s nothing you can do about it.

This line of thinking, though, spurred McMahon to pen his protest sign and hike all the way up the mountain to place it in front of Beaver Creek’s snowstake camera.

After admitting to doing it, McMahon was — predictably — fired from his Vail Resorts job. But what happened next surprised him.

“They wouldn’t let me buy an Epic Pass this season,” McMahon said.

Some customers might tell McMahon the company did him a favor. I talked to a local mother in September who was trying to find out if the 2020 ski lessons in which she had pre-paid and pre-enrolled her children would be refunded. She went to Vail Resorts’ online customer service center in to get some answers, and found a virtual line cue with 3,352 people in it.

Parents who thought they might have lesson credits from the previous season were left waiting in line for hours, only to receive no answers.

“You can’t get through to anyone, and you don’t get any answers even if you do,” said one parent who sent the Vail Daily a screen grab of a virtual line cue in September.

She did not end up receiving a refund.

A screengrab sent to the Vail Daily in September during the run-up to the 2020-21 North American season. Screengrabs of long wait cues went viral after the resort operator announced its refund policies for unused pass days the previous winter and also instituted a new reservations system for its mountains.

Untold stories

Kyle Miner moved on from the company during the summer of 2020, vowing to never work for Vail Resorts again. But he was still living in the company’s employee housing as Vail Resorts had told him he could stay until Oct. 30, as long as he continued to pay rent, which he was doing. There was no mention of his work status.

But on Oct. 5, Miner received a threat from Vail Resorts — vacate housing immediately or be kicked out by the sheriff. He said the threat came when Vail Resorts realized he was no longer working for them. He called the sheriff’s office; a deputy told him it wan an empty threat as the sheriff’s office was not assisting with evictions at that time.

I talked to Miner in October, during the height of his frustration. He still had not received any unemployment compensation due to an error Vail Resorts had made in submitting his wages to the state. He had exhausted most of his savings and was barely getting by, and he was being evicted nearly a month earlier than expected, a crucial few weeks for someone living check to check. He told me even though he didn’t want to, he still paid his rent in full for October, despite the fact that Vail Resorts was trying to have him removed.

“I didn’t have a single cent of income from March 14 to August 28,” he told me. “And I didn’t have anyone to ask for help”

Miner told me he wanted the Vail Daily to publish his account of what had happened to him. He said his experience with Vail Resorts left him with the opinion that the company cares only for profits, not people.

It was the same message McMahon had shared in his protest sign. In addition to the “10 days to vacate employee housing” message, McMahon also included a hand drawn hashtag: #ProfitsOverPeople.

I asked Miner if he knew McMahon or his story. He remembered the sign, but had not heard the fallout. I told Miner that in addition to McMahon losing his job at Beano’s, he told me also lost another non-Vail Resorts job due to the protest sign, and as a final blow, he was not allowed to purchase an Epic Pass for this season. Blacklisted, McMahon called it, banned from skiing at all 37 of Vail Resorts’ properties.

Upon hearing about McMahon, Miner asked me to wait until after the Thanksgiving holiday to write about his situation, because he wanted to ensure his ski pass would work during that time. I didn’t end up writing the story.

When the idea to write about Vail Resorts’ response to the pandemic came up, I didn’t think about Miner and McMahon right away. The incidents involving them are part of the past, and a story like this should look forward, detailing what has changed as a result of the pandemic.

But for me, the fact that people like Miner and McMahon began approaching the Vail Daily to talk openly about their situations is one of the big things that did change as a result of the pandemic. People became fed up, with nowhere else to turn, and started seeking us out in ways I had not seen before. I listened to their stories, and on several occasions, I chose not to share them with our readers.

Among the untold failures that still need to be pointed out regarding the pandemic response in the U.S. and in Colorado, I include my own – the stories I missed, or worse, the ones I heard and kept to myself, feeling that I had been too hard on Vail Resorts amid the barrage of bad press the company received in 2020. At some point, I began to feel a twinge of embarrassment about the near constant stream of email I was sending into the company’s PR department. Every week it was something different, a new complaint, a serious complaint, something I need to look into, something to which they need to respond.

And for the most part, we’ve received those responses. Vail’s newest PR person, John Plack, started the job just a few weeks before the pandemic hit. Since then, he has worked days, nights and weekends, looking into a wide variety of issues that we have presented to him.

CreditWatch Negative

Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz finally responded to the barrage of bad customer service complaints in December.

“It is unacceptable, and I personally apologize to you for your experience,” Katz wrote in a letter to pass holders on Dec. 11.

Also in December, Moody’s upgraded the B2 rating it had given the company’s April effort to take on another $600 million in new debt, from B2 to B1. The upgrade was issued as a result of an effort to take on even more debt in December, yet another $500 million from notes.

“With the proposed $500 million convertible notes offering on top of the $600 million term loan issued in April, Vail’s very good liquidity with over $1.7 billion of total pro forma cash and unused revolver capacity will be beneficial to manage through the uncertain operating environment in FY2021, which is also an important factor in the affirmation of ratings,” Moody’s wrote in its report, published December 15. “… The additional liquidity provided by the $500 million convertible notes will also be available for reinvestment in earnings-enhancing projects and acquisitions once the economic downturn and coronavirus eases and this would increase the asset base and recovery potential for more senior creditors.”

The effort to take on more debt wasn’t as well received by S&P, which kept its April rating at BB, assigned another BB rating to the December effort, and also put Vail Resorts on CreditWatch Negative.

In January, Vail Resorts announced that despite selling 1.4 million Epic Passes this year, season-to-date total skier visits were down 16.6% compared to the prior year season-to-date period.

“We expect these declines were primarily driven by reduced demand for destination visitation at our western resorts and COVID-19 related capacity limitations which were further impacted by snowfall levels that were well below average at our Colorado, Utah and Tahoe resorts through the holiday season,” Katz commented in the Jan. 15 announcement.

A bold prediction

In February, Kyle Miner moved to Arizona. He seems to be doing OK.

He came to Vail looking for an opportunity to make it the West, and in an unexpected way, he does appear to be finding it, just not in the way he thought that he might at Vail Resorts.

The company’s latest message to pass holders came out on Wednesday, a vague statement suggesting something big is happening soon.

Screen grab from instagram.com/epicpass

I asked a Vail Resorts worker what it means. He told me the 2021-22 Epic Pass is going on sale March 23, so it probably has something to do with that and whatever announcements about pass perks are on tap.

I asked if there’s any chance it could mean Vail Resorts is eliminating its reservations system, a new-for-this-season approach to managing crowds that requires guests to pre-reserve the days they want to ski. He said he’d actually guess the opposite. No one is making Vail Resorts use this reservations system, he reminded me. The company made the decision to implement this technology on its own, and it wasn’t cheap or easy to do.

Another person I talked to, whose job at Vail Resorts involves data collection, told me there’s a lot of good that can come from the reservations system, and it’s unlikely Vail will stop using it in the years to come.

This person did not want to be interviewed about it, though. He’s excited about his prospects in this emerging area of the company — the massive new stream of data Vail Resorts now receives based on the reservations system.

In years past, on any given day, Vail may not have been able to predict what services that day’s guests will require, from sandwiches to ski patrol. But now the company knows who is going to be arriving when, and what services they will likely use once they’re here. In addition to the reservations information, Vail Resorts also gleans insights from guests using the company’s new 20% pass holder discount on other Vail Resorts-owned offerings like food, lodging, transportation and equipment rentals.

Gene Fitzgerald of Avon takes advantage of the fresh at Beaver Creek in early December.
Chris Dillmann/cdillmann@vaildaily.com

In September, Katz said that “based on how things play out, we may remove the reservations system, either for the rest of the season, or for parts of it,” adding that “it would be a lot easier to remove the reservations system then to put one in mid season.”

After seeing the value of the data that the reservations system collects, however, and all the possibilities that come with it, removing the reservations system may not be as easy as Katz suggested. In the end, it may prove to be the most lasting facet of the pandemic as it relates to skiing.

“It’s probably a little bit early to take away any concrete learnings from the season,” Katz said in the company’s second quarter earnings call on Thursday. “This was a unique moment, and a unique season, and it’s certainly not something that we would replicate year after year, but there are definitely going to be takeaways that we feel can obviously add value as we go forward.”