Amid the pandemic: Snowmass locals talk about how they’ve been affected by the COVID-19 crisis
On a recent afternoon in Snowmass Town Park, Michelle McCuiston and her daughter Jasmine were all smiles.
As the sun beat down and other families played on the soccer field nearby, the McCuistons stayed in the shade of the trees as Jasmine attempted to climb them, using her mom’s back like a stepping stool.
It turned into a sort of rhythm; Michelle would get down on all fours, Jasmine would jump up to the lowest branches and the two would laugh and grin as they worked through how Jasmine would get back down again.
For Michelle, bright moments like this over the past three months have been made possible by the COVID-19 crisis, which has turned her family’s day-to-day life upside down for worse and for better.
“This pandemic really financially has had a profound impact on businesses and families that will create future hardships for years to come,” McCuiston said. “But because of all the available help, I can feed my kids, I can pay rent, I can spend hours at the park with my daughter. So that’s where it’s been a blessing; through all the craziness the crisis has turned into a blessing.”
Since March 14 when Colorado ski areas were ordered to shut down in an effort to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, Snowmass Village residents like the McCuistons have been forced to adapt in the new era of social distancing, mask wearing uncertainty.
Many have referred to the 14-week period as an extension of the typical spring offseason. But atypical to the norm, many locals lost out on some of the most financially fruitful weeks of winter, leading to more stress and more struggle but also to more support and more appreciation for the village they call home.
“Snowmass is a humble community and when people ask you how you are they actually roll up their sleeves and ask you how you are,” McCuiston said.
“If people can help you, they’ll help you. … You just don’t have that support and care and lift up in other places.”
THE INITIAL IMPACT
Kevin McDonald will never forget the day the ski areas were forced to suddenly shut down in March due to the COVID-19 crisis.
A 25-year ski instructor for Aspen Skiing Co., the longtime Snowmass resident said he remembers feeling a sense of panic about what was going to happen next and in a slump from not being able to spend his days on the mountain with others.
“I won’t lie, I was definitely depressed the first week because as a ski instructor we are so high energy and for me, I crave that interaction with people,” McDonald said. “So it went from people, people, people, to nobody; stay in your apartment. Which wasn’t easy.”
Outside of losing the daily social interactions, McDonald also remembers feeling worried about losing out on the biggest instructing weeks of the winter season.
He also had to navigate through canceling his annual winter skiing experience in Aspen-Snowmass with young adults via UPportunity, the nonprofit he started five years ago to expand the worlds and minds of at-risk youth through travel and adventure; and finding out soon after the shutdown that five people in his ski locker row had tested positive for COVID-19. McDonald said he has tested negative for virus antibodies.
But although he experienced these pandemic-related stresses right at the start of the crisis, McDonald said most were met with continued reassurance and support from Skico and the Snowmass Housing Department especially, as he received a few extra weeks of high-scale pay, the opportunity to set up a rent payment plan for his town housing unit and was able to start receiving unemployment checks.
“One of the most helpful things for me was that communication,” McDonald said, referring to early notices and information pushes from Skico and Snowmass housing officials. “Nobody knew anything about what was happening, it was really scary … so with the skiing company keeping us informed on what they were doing, it just gave us some stability that you didn’t have anywhere else.”
McDonald went on to say that meeting up with village friends and coworkers for social distanced hikes up and skis down Snowmass, along with golfing, also has helped provide some stability through the stay-at-home period.
He’s also witnessed acts of kindness like when Gwyn’s High Alpine donated its remaining food to the community two days after the shutdown that’s helped him keep a positive outlook.
“This was their final year, we were supposed to have a big party to celebrate their decades of great service and were supposed to say thank you them,” McDonald said of Gwyn’s. “But they were the ones who contacted the village to say they had a bunch of food to give away. … It was amazing and just really showed the village, it showed what we’re all about.”
WEATHERING THE CRISIS
Like McDonald, the sudden shift from interacting constantly with locals and visitors to not interacting with anyone wasn’t easy for Snowmass local Stewart Mann.
Mann, a Snowmass resident who works as the event sales manager at Limelight Snowmass, said she was extremely grateful to be able to work remotely on various projects amid Pitkin County’s stay-at-home public health order, but struggled without seeing people face-to-face.
“My job is literally being social, so being told to go home, stay home and not be social, especially with your friends here in the valley, was the hardest part about this whole thing for me,” Mann said.
Because Mann lives alone in Snowmass, she said there were days that were hard and draining without being able to see her friends and coworkers. But through constant video meetups via the House Party app and mental wellness and coping tools from her therapist, Mann said she’s been able to maintain positivity and happiness.
“I think mental health could not be stressed enough,” Mann said. “During all of this, yes, people are eager to get back to work and get the economy started back up, but I think just taking a second as people to realize that this has been some sort of trauma for most, that it’s OK if you may need to get help for yourself and to check in on your friends to make sure they’re doing OK is important.”
Doug McGrath, who also works at Limelight Snowmass as a bartender, said he also found creative, social distanced ways to interact with his village friends and check in with them more during the stay-at-home phase of the COVID-19 crisis.
The longtime Snowmass local said he was out of town for a wedding when the Snowmass Ski Area shut down and that he came home to a seemingly vacant village.
“I didn’t realize things were that bad I guess and so coming back to what was mostly an empty town in the middle of March was kind of a shock,” McGrath said.
Since the March shutdown, McGrath said he’s tried to get outside with his close group of “quarantine friends,” has called in on regular video chats with friends to check in and “dial a shot,” has more recently participated in his housing complex’s Friday social distanced parking lot parties, and overall has just worked to make sure people are doing OK.
“I’ve always appreciated the offseasons when we get our village back, but I guess you could say now I appreciate it a little bit more in a different way,” McGrath said. He worked his first night behind the Limelight bar post-pandemic shutdown June 22.
“In places I’ve worked before it’s like you’re off for a month or six weeks once the winter season is over, but after not working three months in a row I’ve realized, wow, I really do enjoy working here and interacting with people outside of my bubble.”
THE PATH AHEAD
After months of dark businesses and stay-at-home-focused public health requirements, Snowmass Village is slowly beginning to reopen to in-person activity and visits from visitors and part-time residents — bringing back a sense of normalcy in town.
McGrath and Mann are back working at the reopened Limelight Snowmass. McDonald is serving tables as he has for the past several summers at Hickory House in Aspen. And Michelle McCuiston is starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, working through what her and her family’s new normal will look like.
For more than seven years, McCuiston has owned and operated EnJay Boutique, first on the Snowmass Mall and most recently in Aspen.
But after the March shutdown when she and her two kids — Jasmine, 15, and Noah, 18 — were spending more time together at home, McCuiston said she realized she needed to be there for her family more and doesn’t know if she’ll reopen her store again.
“This whole COVID crisis has actually put me in a positive transition,” McCuiston said. “It made me realize that the most important thing to me is my family and to really take a good look at things that were sort of a blur in my peripheral vision.”
The past three months have been challenging for McCuiston and her family. Before she was able to access local and state financial resources, she said her son was the only person bringing money into the family, increasing her and her family’s stress and anxiety as they didn’t know what would happen next.
Yet despite these obstacles, McCuiston said the various COVID-19 crisis support available helped her and her kids make it through — highlighting for her how hard Pitkin County and Snowmass Village officials have worked to ensure families feel safe and cared for amid the pandemic.
“All of the resources available allowed me to not have so much anxiety about the future. It allowed me to let my son be 18 again,” McCuiston said. “It’s been a huge support for our emotional well-being, social well-being, everything. … I just think people have had more time to slow down and really look at each other, hear each other, see each other and help each other.”
McGrath echoed McCuiston’s sentiments, acknowledging that he doesn’t know what will happen next and what the village’s road of recovery will look like, but that he feels even more grateful than before to live in a place like Snowmass.
“I think everyone sort of kept an eye on each other during this whole thing,”
“You get together with people and do what you’re supposed to be doing, keep your distance and all that stuff, and it makes you realize, yeah, there are good people around here. … Every day I thank god I live here.”