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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.


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