Summer kicks off with tepid tourism, slow business in Summit County
FRISCO — The past Memorial Day weekend was like no other before in Summit County. An invisible, microscopic menace managed to radically alter the course of human behavior all across the planet, even up in the mountains, where millions come every year to escape the perils of clustered, closed-in city life.
But that escapism was not enough to drum up business in Summit to levels seen during Memorial Day weekend last year, as a lack of clarity on guidelines and the economic crisis combined to punch a dent in travel and spending in the High Country.
Memorial Day weekend typically attracts tens of thousands of visitors to the mountains. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation’s twice-weekly COVID-19 traffic report, traffic volume going westbound through the Eisenhower Tunnel dropped by 25% this past weekend from Memorial Day weekend in 2019. That’s a drop from 159,201 vehicles passing over the Continental Divide into Summit County last year to 119,157 this year. It was the first drop in Memorial Day traffic through the tunnel in years and the lowest traffic volume since 1999.
One of the main tourist draws last weekend was the official opening of the Frisco and Dillon marinas, opening up Lake Dillon for boating, kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and sunning on the beach. The marinas have implemented procedures to ensure physical distancing and guest safety, including cleaning and sanitizing gear between rentals and staggering boat launches to prevent crowding at the dock.
Frisco Bay Marina Guest Services Coordinator Sophie Ferguson described business at the marina as “down-ish” so far this year, but said there had been a fairly consistent stream of rentals. She said she expected to get busier in the coming weeks once school is out and families can make day trips to the mountains.
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“The marina has an advantage for people because they can socialize while social distancing with the recreational sports on the lake and be out on the lake with their family away from crowds on land,” Ferguson said.
Ferguson admitted the marina is a bit concerned about the possibility of huge crowds forming as summer goes on, but she said community service officers were standing by to advise and educate guests if they overstep bounds on physical distancing. So far, she said, the marina has not reported any issues or citations for noncompliance.
Ferguson added that, just like every year, the marina had sold out all of its slip rentals, indicating that boating still will be very popular this year. She added that the marina was starting to get a lot of reservations for the upcoming Fourth of July holiday and that she was “really optimistic” about business during the heart of summer.
Down the street, other summer businesses have been shaking off the pandemic cobwebs and getting back to more regular work.
Adam Karch — manager of Rebel Sports, a bike and ski rental shop at Second and Main streets in Frisco — said the cycling industry has benefited a bit from the zeal of visitors to get outside and recreate along Summit’s hundreds of miles of trails.
But Karch admitted that losing ski business from resort closures in March and April is still stinging quite a bit, given that the winter resort economy is so much bigger than in summer.
Summer business is off to a slow start for Rebel. With travel advisories and the restriction on how many people can travel on Rebel’s Vail Pass shuttle, the rental side of the business has been slow, while retail and service work has gone up as customers seek more solitary pursuits. The business is also focusing on adhering to physical distancing protocols, including closing off most of its retail space and placing plastic barriers between customers and staff, which makes for stranger, less personal interactions.
At the moment, Karch said it was still hard to know what June would bring as far as business, a sentiment shared among many business owners struggling to project revenue.
“I think we’re just going to have to adapt like we have in the past couple of months,” Karch said. “It’s hard to say what we’re going to see in the future, how much tourism we’re expected to have, and how that’s going to affect business.”
Across the street, outfitter Trouts Fly Fishing has been encouraging visitors to come up to Summit to safely pursue outdoor angling adventures along the Blue, Arkansas and Platte rivers.
But Regional Manager Zeke Hersh said that while retail sales are solid, he has seen half the business he usually does for guided trips — a principal source of revenue for Trouts. He attributed the tour business hit to the pandemic travel advisories but also to the particular concerns of his most important customer demographic: people in their 50s and older who are most vulnerable to the virus and therefore less likely to leave their homes.
Hersh said the unique nature of his business — best experienced with ample time during all-day or multiday fishing expeditions — is also hurting from the short-term rental and lodging restrictions that have prevented visitors from staying in Summit overnight.
“This is an activity that people come out here for a week to do, along with other activities such as rafting, but now they don’t have a place to stay,” Hersh said, adding that most of Trouts’ business has come from day-trippers from Denver who are able to go back home at night.
Hersh admitted it has been difficult to do business with such rapidly changing guidelines and rules, both preventing future business planning and confusing potential customers who might not be sure whether coming up to the mountains is a safe or appropriate thing to do.
“The people just aren’t there,” Hersh said, referring to the hordes of visitors who typically come to stay in Summit for a few days or weeks this time of year, walking up and down Main Street and popping in and out of shops. “There’s still a lot of unknown. A good portion of the population as a whole are waiting to see what happens after two weeks, if there’s another big influx of cases.”
While summer recreation businesses are seeing mixed results, mom and pop retail in Summit has taken a gut shot. The drastically reduced foot traffic, mask requirements and general fear of the virus has taken a heavy toll on small retailers like Summit Gold Jewelry, which has sold custom-made jewelry, precious metals and stones in Frisco and Summit for more than three decades.
Proprietor Lyn Philips said the pandemic is the worst crisis her little gilded shop, right next door to Trouts, has ever faced.
“I’m dead, dead in the water,” said Philips, a lifelong Summit local whose parents opened the shop. “The ones who are coming in are really afraid, and I don’t blame them. There’s a lot of fear out there.”
She added that the physical distancing protocols, which she readily accepts as required to keep people safe, have made it hard for her to do business, considering the small square footage she has inside.
Given that it’s a jewelry business, Philips said trying to do business outside is not safe or feasible. And having the ability to have only one or two customers in at a time has been a huge blow, she said, as it disrupts the window and display shopping customers like to do at their leisure before purchasing an item.
Philips said she was having a particular issue with the mask requirement, now being enforced inside businesses by the town of Frisco. She said even with the masks provided by the town to local businesses, it has been a struggle with customers who refuse to wear masks, forcing her to turn them away or risk a heavy fine from the town and county, which she cannot afford.
Philips said that while she appreciated and needed the rental assistance from the town, it only covered her rent for May and June, and she did not know how she would be able to pay July’s rent if there is another month of dead business in town. She said she knows the federal government is still offering small business loans but that she was not willing to chance going into debt, especially given the lack of clarity on whether July would even turn a profit.
The swiftness with which the pandemic crushed her store’s fortunes has “devastated” Philips, who is trying to keep her family business from being yet another casualty of COVID-19.
“I was thriving one day, and two months put me out,” Philips said. “It’s sad. I’m still fighting, I still want to make it, but I don’t know if I’ll get through another month of this.”
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