Keeping the lights on: How Eagle County businesses weathered a pandemic year
Local businesses had to evolve, or change entirely, to survive shutdowns, cancellations and occupancy restrictions
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.