Possible shutdown effect on skiing remains unknown

Skiers pass under the Village Express lift at Snowmass on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

With a possible COVID-19-related shutdown looming Monday, the big question in Aspen on Friday was how it might affect the area’s four ski mountains.

Unfortunately, by the end of the day Friday, the answer from Pitkin County Public Health and Aspen Skiing Co. was: We don’t know yet.

“We are trying to figure out what recommendations on the table are,” said Kara Silbernagel, the county’s projects and policy manager. “We have a lot of work to see what the options will even be.”

Skico spokesman Jeff Hanle was in a Zoom meeting Friday evening with an internal company group discussing the issue and said a meeting with county officials was planned for Saturday.

The Pitkin County Board of Health met Thursday to discuss the skyrocketing local COVID-19 infection rate and what do about it. Board members decided to reconvene Monday afternoon with more detailed information to ponder three options.

Pitkin County commissioners on Friday announced a special work session at 9 a.m. Monday to talk about the board of health’s decision and the options that will be presented.

The first option in front of the board of health Monday would move the county to the state’s Red level restrictions, which would close indoor dining at restaurants but keep open outdoor dining and takeout. All sectors of the county except restaurants and a few permitted indoor events have been operating under Red level restrictions since a few days before Christmas in a level termed “Orange-plus-plus.”

The second option would impose Purple level restrictions, which essentially would be a stay-at-home order. The third option would impose the Draconian restrictions put in place here in March at the beginning of the pandemic.

Answers about the effects on skiing at each of those levels remained unclear Friday.

For example, Summit County ski mountains have been through Red level restrictions, and the main thing operators did was reduce capacity, Silbernagel said. However, the mountains already had implemented a reservation system, so it was easy to make that happen. Skico chose not implement a reservations system, so the method of reducing capacity here may not be in place, she said.

“That’s not necessarily what will happen here,” Silbernagel said. “We cannot look to Summit as apples to apples.”

Skico’s winter operations plan, approved by both the county and the state, does contain a “developed backup reservation system that can be implemented” if local cases of COVID-19 “move to problematic levels,” according to the plan released publicly in early November.

Silbernagel said she was unsure if the reservation system was on the table, and Hanle did not answer a question seeking that information. It was also not clear what else besides a reservation system Skico might be considering.

Capacity limits for Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass were blacked out from the plan released to The Aspen Times because they were considered proprietary information.

Even more foggy Friday was the specter of Purple level restrictions.

That’s because Purple level restrictions were instituted by the state after Skico’s operations plan was approved, Silbernagel said. And the state apparently did not take into account ski mountains when it adopted the new color, she said. County officials asked for clarification from the state Friday.

“The issue is we don’t have a definitive answer from the state,” she said. “No county really went into Purple, so there’s no clear guidance from the state if ski areas are required to shut down in Purple.”

Finally, there’s the issue of the March level restrictions.

Ski mountains in Aspen were shut down March 14, but that was by order of Gov. Jared Polis, Silbernagel said. And while Pitkin County did not order the shutdown, county officials were in talks with Skico leaders about how best to close the mountains and get tourists out of town at the time Polis issued his order, County Manager Jon Peacock has said.

So, again, it wasn’t clear what Pitkin County would suggest when it comes to outlining March restrictions governing ski mountains.

The impetus for proposing strengthening restrictions is COVID-19 case levels that local public health officials have called “rampant” in Aspen and Pitkin County.

The county’s incidence rate – already the second-highest in the state – hit a new high of 2,523 on Friday, according to local epidemiology data. Garfield County’s incidence rate Friday was 877, while Eagle County’s was 759, according to the state’s COVID-19 Dial. Anything above 350 is considered in the Red level restrictions.

Daily case counts continue to increase, as well. Pitkin County reported 69 new positive cases Thursday, 47 on Wednesday, 49 on Tuesday, 29 on Monday, 16 on Sunday and 101 on Saturday, according to local data. In the last 14 days, 484 new cases have been reported.