Aspen’s holiday weekend likely to boom with pent-up, post-COVID celebration |

Aspen’s holiday weekend likely to boom with pent-up, post-COVID celebration

People enjoy the sunshine and summer breeze at Wagner Park in downtown Aspen on Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With full flights and surging hotel bookings, the Fourth of July weekend is shaping up to be Aspen’s first big post-pandemic holiday celebration.

Aspen airport officials are preparing to run out of parking for private jets, restaurants and retails are bracing for crowds that could magnify labor shortage problems and the city of Aspen is planning for an experimental “reverse parade” that will replace the traditional parade, which was canceled last year.

Even the local police will be all hands on deck for the anticipated post-COVID festivities.

“Back at the beginning of the year, we looked forward and preemptively said, ‘No one gets vacation at the Fourth of July,’” said Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn. “In our minds, we were thinking this will be the first big hurrah where society says, ‘Hey we’re back from COVID!’

“There’s a lot of pent-up energy and people are out.”

The Fourth of July is traditionally one of the busiest holidays in Aspen — Christmas is the other biggie — so the appearance of crowds will come as no surprise to residents, business owners or regular visitors. However, with the pandemic-tainted spring, summer, fall and winter now in the rearview mirror and fading, the collective need to celebrate appears to be catching fire in the resort communities of the Upper Roaring Fork Valley.

“We are seeing a surge in summer business,” according to a June 22 email from Aspen Skiing Co. officials who track local hotel occupancy. “We are expecting to break some occupancy records this summer.”

Overall, summer occupancy in Aspen and Snowmass Village was at 40%, compared with 34% in 2019 and just 9.6% last summer, according to the email last week from the Skico team led by Kristi Kavanaugh, vice president of sales.

June’s occupancy rate was 48%, compared with 51% in June 2019, while May numbers for the same time periods were 34% versus 38% in 2019, according to the Skico email.

“With the lifting of the mask mandate on June 4, we expect this small gap (in the June occupancy rates between 2021 and 2019) to close, which is quite impressive considering the shift in our anchor June events such as (the Food & Wine) Classic to September, and the Aspen Ideas Festival being virtual,” the email states.

Meanwhile, the Aspen-Pitkin County Airport is actually handling more flights per day this summer than in the summer of 2019.

Colorado’s third-busiest airport — behind Denver and Colorado Springs — is welcoming 23 flights per day this summer, compared with 20 per day in the summer of 2019, said Bill Tomcich, a local airline consultant with Fly Aspen Snowmass. The number goes to 24 flights a day Saturdays, when the new weekly flight from Austin, Texas, lands, he said.

“The airlines have built very robust schedules this summer,” Tomcich said.

Flights this week were full, but not quite sold out as of Wednesday, he said.

“It will be busy,” Tomcich said. “Very busy.”

Dan Bartholomew, Aspen-Pitkin County Airport director, felt the same way.

“So far it’s looking very busy, especially from a general aviation (private planes) standpoint,” he said. “They will start ramping up (Thursday) and through the weekend.”

Once the parking area on the ramp at the airport is full, airport officials can only allow “drop and go” landings, where planes drop off passengers and fly to regional airports to park or back to where they came from, Bartholomew said.

One small tweak this weekend could delay some planes from landing, however. Because of operations supporting the nearby Sylvan Fire, the FAA will only allow 12 aircraft per hour to land or takeoff in Aspen, he said.

“It’s causing some delays for commercial aircraft,” Bartholomew said. “It will slow down the number of planes coming in.”

Finally, some restaurants and retailers have worried that a local shortage of employees could curtail operating hours during the Fourth of July weekend, according to comments at this week’s Aspen Chamber Resort Association meeting.

“The service industry is booming like it’s on steroids,” said Nina Eisenstat, an ACRA board member. “We’re going to be busy through the fall.”

However, there is unlikely to be a shortage of celebration in the Aspen area this weekend.

The city of Aspen will close the downtown core from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday to allow crowds to circulate through “stationary exhibits,” or booths from participants who might have normally marched or driven in the traditional Fourth of July parade.

The city’s fireworks show has been canceled again this year, as it has in recent years because drought conditions and fears of igniting a wildfire. Fire restrictions will remain at Stage 2 through the weekend, meaning that outdoor campfires and charcoal barbecue grills are not allowed.