As more Coloradans encouraged to get outside, summer visitation will serve as test for winter in Vail

Summer operations are expected to resume on Vail Mountain in late June or early July.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

Governor Jared Polis on Monday encouraged Coloradans to get outside, signing an executive order titled “Updated Safer at Home Executive Order to Transition to Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors.”

The Executive Order encourages high-risk individuals — people over 65 or with underlying health conditions — to start enjoying Colorado’s outdoor spaces at a safe social distance, in addition to staying at home as much as possible.

Previously high-risk Coloradans had been asked to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

“Colorado has millions of acres of accessible federal land, municipal parks, State parks, State and county open space, and other accessible areas that allow for stronger Social Distancing in our great outdoors,” the Executive Order reads. “Coloradans should Stay at Home or in the great outdoors away from others as much as possible and continue to limit social interactions, remain at least six feet from others not in their household, and wear non-medical facial coverings in public.”

Lifts turning again

The order is the latest in a series of measures aimed at making more outdoor activities available in Colorado as the state relaxes pandemic restrictions.

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Last week, as the state ban on ski lifts was lifted, Polis said that no Coloradan, and certainly not the governor, could have fathomed there would ever be prohibition on riding chairlifts in the state.

“Very difficult action to take,” Polis said of his March 14 order to close ski areas across the state. “But thankfully we took it, and that helped prevent the exponential curve.”

The chairlift ban expired May 25, and by May 27 Arapahoe Basin had reopened to a limited number of skiers and snowboarders.

Vail Resorts announced the company intended to take its time in getting the lifts turning again, and despite keeping Breckenridge open to skiers all the way to June 9 last season, this season there would be no reopening of the ski lifts.

“The more we looked at it, the more we did not think it was the right timing to reopen,” Vail CEO Rob Katz said in a statement on May 21. “We know there would be tremendous enthusiasm to get back on snow one last time in North America. But we also know that enthusiasm would carry its own impacts, on us and on others — something we think will be more manageable for everybody in July, at which point we want those resorts fully focused on their new approach to summer operations.”

Katz said the company hopes to resume summer lift service by late June or early July.

In Eagle County, summer operations at Vail Resorts could serve as a good test scenario for winter operations, said Eagle County Public Health Director Heath Harmon.

Relative safety

While Vail Resorts is the largest employer in Eagle County, all workplaces will have to be extra cognizant of the health of their employees.

“Our guidance is encouraging businesses who identify two COVID-19 cases to temporarily close those businesses and rapidly contact public health for cleaning, mitigation, employee screening and reopening guidance,” said State Epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy “We think that early closure of these businesses is really an important strategy to control transmission that could potentially occur following an outbreak in a workplace in particular.”

In a letter titled “Be Safe: Our approach to reopening,” Katz said the way the company thinks about safety has been at the top of his mind at the moment.

“That culture of ‘safety first’ is part of the fabric of every one of our operations,” Katz wrote.

Polis also addressed the notion of safety, saying what’s safe for one person isn’t necessarily safe for another.

“We’re issuing guidelines using science to make (activities) as safe as possible, though … depending on what you think as an individual, it may not be safe enough for you,” Polis said.

It’s a statement echoed by Eagle County Emergency Manager Birch Barron.

“Safe or not safe is probably an unsafe way to think about this virus,” said Barron said. “This is a really tricky virus, and really what we’re looking at is levels of risk, and is an increased level of risk acceptable if the consequence of not doing that is too high. This is not an exact science… if something is open and allowed, that does not make it safe. There’s no such thing as zero risk in this environment.”

Communication will be key

The summer could also bring the need for quick communication between Vail Resorts and other businesses and Eagle County should a second wave of coronavirus infections hit.

Harmon said having communication channels dialed in will be the key to a successful transition into a tourist welcoming phase in Vail.

Vail Resorts has been participating in weekly calls with the county’s Joint Information Center and business task force, said county communications manager Kris Widlak.

But Harmon and Widlak say the county has yet to hear from Vail Resorts regarding its summer plans.

“It’s a conversation we look forward to having with Vail Resorts, in terms of how are we helping to communicate with workers, while at the same time we’re having this communication and collaborative meetings with our business community as a whole, making sure that we can communicate better with guests,” Harmon said.

“We’ve got some areas where we’ve been successful in working in planning in advance, and I think we look forward to those future conversations in terms of how we can do that better with Vail Resorts as well,” Harmon added.

Widlak, on Friday, said the county expects to have a conversation with Vail Resorts about summer operations as the company continues to refine its plans. The conversation has been requested by Vail Resorts, Widlak said.

“We’ve had a high level of communication and coordination so far, and certainly expect it to continue,” she said.

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