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.
“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.”
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.”