Transportation, indoor crowds in Aspen a concern for COVID-19 winter
Aspen business representatives during Wednesday’s virtual town hall shared their concerns about the upcoming winter season with COVID-19 in the air, and brought ideas on how to build upon the successes of the summer.
Donnie Lee, general manager of The Gant condominium resort, said compared to other places in the country, Aspen gets high marks for its response and recovery, and he hopes that is the case this winter.
“Overall community participation and the commitment to just doing what is necessary so that everybody stayed safe is really something that worked and it’s an easy thing to say, ‘Hey, we are going to continue that,’” he said, “… but where (do) we project the pressure points that are going to occur this winter, losing the outdoor spaces, how are we going to deal with transportation, how are the restaurants going to function?”
A lot of that will depend on public health orders and social distancing guidelines as COVID-19 remains in a resort community that is expected to see a high number of visitors this ski season.
Bill Tomcich, a local air travel consultant, told the breakout group in the lodging sector during the town hall, which was sponsored by the city and Aspen Chamber Resort Association (ACRA), said he’s concerned about what will happen at the airport once 34 flights are coming in daily beginning Dec. 17.
“It’s going to be really busy, especially in baggage claim, so what ACRA can do? I think they’ve done a marvelous job with their welcoming and guest services at the Aspen airport,” he said. “This is something we are going to have to put a lot of thought into because we’ve got three months to figure out how this is going to work.”
Transportation in general is on the minds of the business community, whether it’s at the airport, the use of lodge shuttles and HOV lanes, limitations on Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses, the availability of rental cars, or parking.
Aspen City Councilman Ward Hauenstein, who is the liaison to the lodging sector, said the use of the public right of way in downtown streets for retail and restaurants like has been done this summer will be difficult to manage in the winter.
“We have snow, we have snow plows and if you want to use public right of way it might require road closures and road closures take away parking spaces,” he said. “If it’s open, making it safe for a snowplow to go through without wiping out a yurt or a tent is going to be a real challenge, so that is what I see as a balancing act.”
There’s a survey on the city’s web page, aspencommunityvoice.com, that asks 10 questions of participants on their thoughts about maintaining a thriving economy amid a pandemic and what their concerns are heading into winter.
The survey responses, as well as the feedback from Wednesday’s town hall meeting, as well as from the one for the community at-large that will be held Sept. 30, will be considered as officials begin to design parameters for the winter and a marketing campaign.
There were more than 230 responses as of Wednesday morning, with 54% of respondents expressing concern that the mandatory mask zone is set to expire in November and City Council will not extend it.
There’s also concern among respondents that there will be too many visitors here to operate safely.
The town hall had 80 participants attend Wednesday, with some of them answering real time polling questions posed to the group, with 51% projecting that winter business will be below average and 40% believing it will be average.
ACRA President and CEO Debbie Braun said the chamber is working on a “toolkit” for business to “COVID in the winter.”
She said she hopes the city can, in partnership with ACRA, help with dispersion of people by opening more of its open spaces and expand parks and recreation.
“People won’t always just be up on the hill,” she said. “So if they are going go to cross-country skiing, or backcountry, we’re talking about hiring guides. I’m curious if the city of Aspen is putting more effort into their parks department so we can have broomball, cross-country skiing, ice skating and all of these other amenities.”
The city has assembled a “winter team” of staff members who are currently strategizing for the upcoming season.