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Busy for the holiday: Restaurants, shops welcome guests back to a Vail Village that resembles pre-COVID times

People shop and explore the village Saturday in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

For the first time since 2019, visitors are returning to a Vail Village that resembles the one we all know and love from pre-COVID times.

Gone are the plexiglass barriers, the capacity restrictions and the ubiquitous mask mandates. Across all industries in the village, businesses are celebrating a return to normalcy, and are able to serve a clientele that is rapidly returning to pre-pandemic numbers and demographics.

The Red Lion, the apres-ski mainstay located right near Gondola One, is back at full capacity after operating at 50% volume all of last winter.

Raquelle Ahrens has been a bartender at the Red Lion for four years, and she said the classic communal atmosphere that the restaurant was famous for before COVID is already returning.

“Last year, we had every other table blocked off, and this year we have strangers that can sit together, so it’s really nice,” Ahrens said. “We’ve definitely been picking up this week with the holiday, and it’s been really busy — which is great for us — but I’m just excited to see that apres where we’re shoulder to shoulder and everyone is dancing and singing together.”

This time last year, if you were at one of the live music shows that take place daily in bars across the village, you are probably familiar with the little plexiglass rooms that the performers were required to play in so that they could sing safely without a mask. Thanks to the vaccination progress that has been made locally and across the country, live singers have been released from their plexiglass cages and are free to connect with audiences face to face.

The Red Lion stays busy Saturday in Vail.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

“We had our singer in what we called the aquarium — he looked like he was in a little fishbowl,” Ahrens said, laughing at the memory. “But that’s all gone now, and we can just have that live music the way we like it and the way we’re used to.”

Stores in the village similarly had to reduce capacity and adapt their customer service practices to help slow the spread of the virus. Canon Kirchner, a sales associate at Christy Sports on Bridge Street, said that rental and gear shop employees did everything they could to ensure the safety of staff and customers during sales interactions.

“At least from renting and selling boots and that sort of stuff, we were very aware of it,” Kirchner said. “Obviously you need to get in close, but we had barriers up on the rental benches and we were distancing ourselves when we could. Our shop was very good, last year, about cleaning and making sure our customers were wearing masks. We lasted all winter last year without anybody in our shop getting sick, and that’s because we were making sure we were staying safe.”

The effort enabled Christy Sports to keep its staff protected without sacrificing sales, as Kirchner said the shop did not see any significant reduction in gear sales and rental services last year. Now, staffers are able to welcome customers into the space without keeping them 6 feet apart or divided by a barrier, and Kirchner said that in this past week the shop has served even more customers than during Thanksgiving pre-pandemic times.

“I would say that and more,” Kirchner said. “It’s been a very busy Thanksgiving.”

People peruse the village Saturday in Vail. Business throughout the Thanksgiving holiday and weekend has been robust.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily

At hotels in the village, room availability was not reduced, but capacity limitations were placed on shared spaces, such as the lobby, spa and restaurant areas. With different areas of the country requiring very different levels of COVID-19 restrictions, visitors from other states were also unclear on what they could and could not do in the valley.

Gabriel Gonzalez is the guest services manager at the Evergreen Vail Lodge and Resort, and he said a significant part of his job last year was to get guests up to speed with local restrictions.

“Last year, with everything going on and the whole mask restriction and all those details, it was a lot of explaining to everyone how everything worked,” Gonzalez said. “Some people were uncertain on where they could go eat, where they could hang out, where they could go out for drinks, so it was a little difficult there. Being able to answer those questions for them made them feel a bit better as far as going out into town.”

COVID-related questions still come up, but in general guests are confident to explore the village on their own again under looser regulations. Gonzalez also said he is happy to see international visitors returning to the valley, after being held back by border restrictions in 2020.

“We were still pretty busy, but of course, we didn’t have the international guests,” Gonzalez said. “It was mostly people coming from the Front Range area, from Denver, or from other states close by. We’re definitely going back to what would be considered somewhat normal, we’re getting international travelers this weekend. People are coming from Japan and Mexico, so I think the restrictions on some of these countries are getting a little bit looser, and we’re seeing more travelers coming from international destinations.”

While COVID-19 remains a force to be reckoned with in Eagle County, and across the globe, the difference between this November and last is dramatic. A year ago at this time, not a single Eagle County resident had been vaccinated against the virus. Julie Scales, a respiratory therapist at Vail Health, was the first local to get the shot on Dec. 16, 2020. In the ensuing 12 months, Eagle County has become one of the most vaccinated counties in a state that is among the most vaccinated in the country.

While COVID-19 transmission remains elevated in the county, the trajectory has been going down, with the one-week cumulative incidence rate dropping to 198 cases per 100,000 as of Saturday.

Walk into a hotel in the village now, and you will see guests from all over the world enjoying the common spaces and being able to interact in a relaxed environment, without the constant burden of fear of infection and the unknown.

“We’re just happy to be going back to somewhat normal times,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just nice to see more people hanging out, walking around and feeling safe, and it’s nice to see a lot more guests.”

The ability to connect and create memories is arguably the greatest gift to be restored during the holiday season this year.

“There’s just kind of been that big exhale,” Ahrens said. “I just like seeing all our guests coming in, and they don’t have that hesitancy of talking to someone new or meeting someone or shaking someone’s hand. It’s really nice to see everyone relax a little bit and lean back into meeting new people and creating new memories. I think that’s the best and biggest thing that we have going on this year.”

Beaver Creek eyes Monday for Opening Day

Beaver Creek’s mountain operations team has been working around the clock to blow snow and get the mountain ready for opening.
Vail Resorts/Courtesy photo

With the assistance of Mother Nature and its mountain operations team, Beaver Creek Resort is targeting Monday, Nov. 29, to kick off its season.

The mountain was initially scheduled to open Wednesday, Nov. 24, a day before Thanksgiving. However, unseasonably warm weather and a lack of snowfall pushed back that start date.

A dusting of snow and low temperatures in recent days allowed Beaver Creek’s mountain operations teams to better prepare the mountain for opening, according to an email from Rachel Levitsky, a spokeswoman for Vail Resorts.

“Our snowmakers have been working around the clock,” Levitsky said in a phone call on Friday. “We really just had to wait for the optimal temperatures to kick in, and then they could do their thing. They are a huge reason why we’re able to open in such a dry and warmer than usual year.”

The lack of snowfall and warmer temperatures were specifically affecting the resort’s lower elevations; however, the recent cold front has aided snowmaking in the base area.

“When we see the temperatures drop in the lower elevations, they’ve been able to blow snow in our base area to give us great coverage down there and make sure we’re providing a great early season product that’s safe and enjoyable for all of our guests,” Levitsky said.

The resort has yet to announce what terrain will be open on Monday, but expects it will “be in line with years past, focusing on Beaver Creek mountain,” Levitsky said, adding that it is sure to include at least one top-to-bottom run.

“We won’t have a download scenario,” she said.

Over the weekend, the resort expects a continuation of these “optimal snowmaking temperatures in the evenings and overnight to make sure that it’s cold enough and dry enough to blow that snow,” Levitsky said. “We’re confident in the forecast and our snowmaking teams will be working hard through the weekend to prepare for Monday.”

In addition to getting terrain ready for Opening Day, snowmakers have been equally focused on preparing for the Birds of Prey World Cup races, which the resort is hosting Dec. 3-5. And so far, snowmakers have been successful in getting the course ready for next weekend, Levitsky said.

Snowmakers have taken advantage of colder temperatures to prepare Beaver Creek for Monday’s Opening Day.
Vail Resorts/Courtesy Photo

Beaver Creek was among several Colorado ski areas that delayed this year’s opening due to unseasonably warm weather and less-than-ideal snowfall.

Now, it will fall just behind several other resorts that opened this week. Copper Mountain Resort in Summit County opened Monday, Aspen Mountain and Snowmass opened Thursday and Steamboat Resort is scheduled to open Saturday. Other resorts — like Telluride — are still waiting on more snow to open.

While early season weather truly varies from year to year, Monday is slightly later than Beaver Creek’s typical opening, historically opening the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, Levitsky said.

Beaver Creek’s Opening Day will feature music, a fun banner breaking, as well as some “surprise and delight morning snacks if you’re in the right place at the right time,” Levitsky said. Also, guests of the mountain can look forward to the return of Cookie Time, which took a hiatus last season, but will occur daily at 3 p.m. starting Opening Day and continuing throughout the season.

COVID-19 didn’t deliver a funding wallop so county plans strategic priority spending in 2022

A biker makes his way down the Eagle Valley Trail on a warm winter day Monday near Wolcott. In 2021, Eagle County issued certificates of participation to fund completion of the decades-long project and trail work is planned as part of the 2022 budget.

As they prepared the 2021 Eagle County budget, members of the the county’s financial team braced themselves for the worst.

But then something unexpected happened — the COVID-19 global pandemic didn’t hit has hard as they thought it would.

“Yes, we did go into a recession during COVID, but it was the shortest recession in U.S. history,” said Eagle County Chief Financial Officer Jill Klosterman. “And we had a huge sales tax year. Year-to-date we are up 26% over 2020.”

Now approaching the conclusion of a year when the budget anticipated a large decrease in sales tax revenues, the county expects to collect approximately $25 million.

“Last year we didn’t have any idea if folks were going to come here to ski or not,” said Klosterman. In the end, visitors did come and locals augmented tourist spending.

“People didn’t go out of the county to buy their goods. They did more ordering, which is something they became more comfortable with in 2021,” Klosterman said. “We now know a lot more about how to live and function in a COVID-19 world than we did at this time last year.”

That knowledge helped formulate the county’s 2022 budget, Klosterman continued.

“We are cautiously optimistic. We are looking at what happens in the world, but we are not really seeing anything out there that would cause us to be super conservative in this budget,” she said.

Strategic priorities

Faced with a budget that won’t be as lean as anticipated, the county commissioners are focused on staff retention and strategic goals.

Just like other large employers in the valley, the county is facing a difficult time finding workers. The 2022 budget will address that issue by including both merit and cost-of-living pay increases. Klosterman said the amount of money earmarked for wages hasn’t yet been finalized, but it will likely be between 4% and 7%.

“We are not isolated from the effects of the Great Resignation and the lack of workforce,” she said. “We want to try to keep our staff happy.”

Beyond the wages allocation, the county is looking at its list of strategic priorities as a roadmap for the budget. At the top of that list is workforce housing.

In 2021, better than anticipated revenues prompted the county to approve $10 million for the Bold Housing Moves program. By the end of the year, approximately $4.5 million of that money will have been spent with the remaining $5.5 million allocated for 2022.

Klosterman noted that much of the program focused on immediate intervention. As a result dollars went to increase down payment assistance and fund more deed-restricted units. There were also medium term projects such as providing homeowners with funding to build accessory dwelling units.

But big projects that would involve county participation in construction of new workforce units are longer term, and more expensive, solutions. Klosterman noted that $1.5 million has been set aside from the initial $10 million to help plan and launch that ambitious work.

“We have also entered into a listing agreement to sell Lake Creek Village. When that sale happens, we will have a plan to spend that money to build new units and partner with developers to really impact the housing need,” Klosterman said. “We will use every tool we have available.”

The 2022 county budget also includes funding for other priorities, including early childhood education, economic diversification, transportation, reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and wildfire mitigation.

There is $1.7 million allocated for early childhood education access and quality.

Not only is quality and affordable child care hard to find in Eagle County, it’s becoming impossible for providers to maintain the status quo as they battle staffing and funding challenges amid immense community need.
Vail Daily archive

“The workforce shortage has hit the early childhood work for as much, if not more than any other sector,” Klosterman noted.

A new county economic development program will get $225,000 in funding next years and the greenhouse gas reduction effort is slated for $1.6 million.

“The federal infrastructure bill has a lot of energy-related funding in it as well,” Klosterman said. “We just don’t know yet how that will translate into our budget.”

She noted the county will continue its Energy Smart program to provide grant money for residents who switch out older, inefficient systems and its partnerships with Walking Mountains Science Center and the Roaring Fork Valley Community Office for Resource Efficiency to address energy needs for low income residents.

“We are also planning to purchase more electric and hybrid vehicles for our motor pool fleeting including the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office,” Klosterman said. “We had a limited ability to purchase new vehicles in 2021 because of supply chain issues.”

The past couple of years have made wildfire mitigation a top priority for county officials, she continued. “We are actively talking about what is the right amount of local dollars to invest in this very high priority,” she said. The draft budget earmarks $1.2 million, but that figure is subject to change. “The infrastructure deal also has money for this, likely through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.”

At the end of the trail

Rounding out strategic priorities, there is a project that’s been decades in the making — the Eagle Valley Trail.

In 2021, the county issued $8.7 million work of certificates of participation to complete the valley bike trail. Of that, $3.7 million was spend in 2021. Klosterman noted the year ahead will include work on some of the final, and some of the most difficult, stretches of unfinished path.

“It will include the Duck Pond to Dotsero stretch, EagleVail Phase II construction and the Wolcott to Edwards planning,” she said. “We think we may need to acquire some more rights-of-way or land as we continue that work.”

From left, Dick Cleveland, Tim McGuire, Jeanne McQueeney, Matt Scherr, Peter Lombardi, Shoshana Lew, Will Kearney and Kevin Sharkey cut the ribbon on the new section of the Eagle Valley Trail last month in EagleVail. In 2022, the county will work on some of the final, and some of the most difficult, stretches of the unfinished path.
John LaConte/Vail Daily

In total, the county’s operating/general fund budget will total $49 million in 2022. The county’s total budget — which includes the general fund as well as its debt service, transit, county airport, road and bridge, public health and other funds — will total $160 million.

The public hearing for the 2022 Eagle County budget is planned Tuesday, Dec. 7. The Eagle County Board of Commissioners is slated to adopt the final budget on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

VIDEO: Vail Mountain opens top to bottom terrain as snow falls

WATCH: The Vail Daily’s John LaConte delivers a conditions report while riding the newly opened terrain on Vail Mountain.

Skiing and snowboarding Vail Mountain during the 2021-22 season no longer requires a ride down the gondola at the end of the day as Vail opened top-to-bottom skiing via Upper and Lower Lion’s Way on Wednesday.

The mountain now offers more than 250 acres of skiing and snowboarding with more than 2,500 feet of vertical.

A view of Upper Lion’s Way in Vail on Wednesday. The snowy road provides an important connection in allowing skiers to egress the mountain without downloading the gondola.
John LaConte / Vail Daily

Vail reported an inch of snow at 5:41 a.m. Wednesday, and more continued to fall throughout the day. The valley floor had several inches by noon, snarling traffic in the area. Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 6 both reported closures Wednesday morning in Eagle County.

New runs at top

Vail also opened a beginner terrain offering atop Eagle’s Nest with the fixed grip three-person Little Eagle (Lift No. 15) opening for the season, along with the Thunder Cat Carpet (Lift No. 35) moving sidewalk. Accessing this terrain requires uploading the Eagle Bahn Gondola (Lift No. 19), followed by a download on the gondola to exit the mountain.

In the area known as Mountain Top atop the Mountain Top Express (Lift No. 4), the Slifer Express and Cappuccino runs are now open for the season as well, joining Swingsville, Ramshorn and Powerline runs.

A view of the Little Eagle area at Vail on Wednesday. The beginner terrain atop the Eagle Bahn Gondola opened for the season on Tuesday.
John LaConte / Vail Daily

Egressing the mountain at the end of the day without downloading Gondola One requires use of the Upper and Lower Lion’s Way roads, as well as portions of Lodgepole Gulch, Lower Bear Tree, Middle Born Free and the Vail Village Catwalk.

Those choosing to ski to the bottom must end the day in Vail Village at Mountain Plaza, as access to Lionshead Village is not yet available.