Vail Resorts asks Summit County to remove ski area capacity restrictions

Skiers and riders are seen waiting in line on opening day Nov. 6 at Keystone Resort. Keystone and Breckenridge Ski Resort officials recently asked the county to eliminate their capacity limits. County officials declined but said they would revisit the issue.
Photo by Liz Copan / Studio Copan

On Tuesday morning, Vail Resorts properties in Summit County, including Breckenridge Ski Resort and Keystone Resort, posted on social media that they had submitted a request to the Summit County Public Health Department to remove capacity restrictions at ski areas.

The social media posts indicated that the reduced capacities mandated by Summit County government restrict the resorts more than their state-approved winter operating plans.

At a Summit County Board of Health meeting later in the day, government officials discussed the request. Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said the county put the most recent capacity restrictions in place on ski areas and other businesses due to a worry about the impact on the community from a high number of out-of-state and Front Range visitors.

The county has declined to publicly release ski area capacity limits at the direction of the ski areas’ lawyers, who cite protected trade secrets as the reason.

Tuesday’s ski resort capacity discussion came as Wineland described the county’s current COVID-19 situation as “fragile” despite a recent decrease or stabilization in all three of the state’s metrics: new cases per 100,000 people, positivity rate and hospitalizations.

Wineland said that after some recent outbreaks within ski area employee housing, she believed it would be best to wait on relaxing restrictions on ski areas until the county’s downward trend in COVID-19 case numbers gets closer to 350 per 100,000 people. The county currently sits at 752 new cases per 100,000 people in the past two weeks, according to the state’s dial dashboard.

Summit County Commissioner Thomas Davidson said the county needs to keep reminding itself that it is “still in a precarious place” even though numbers have dropped.

Summit County Commissioner Karn Stiegelmeier said she thinks ski areas are trying to do a good job with COVID-19 rules but enacting the practices is very difficult.

“I have seen some alarming pictures of lack of distancing,” Stiegelmeier said. “If we were to increase any capacity, it would be worse. We know there will be so much pressure in the next week. And if we’ve already had problems in recent days, if we increase capacity, we’re asking for problems and higher transmission rates.”

Summit County Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott said Vail Resorts officials asked the county to relax the capacity restrictions and said they would maintain some capacity limits “on their own discretion.” Hendershott added that the county has received eight to 10 complaints per week regarding COVID-19 regulations at ski resorts, which he said “is a reasonable amount considering the thousands of people on the mountain.”

“And a lot of folks have misunderstandings with regards to what the requirements are,” Hendershott said. “For example, unrelated parties boarding a chairlift or gondola together, that’s allowed under the guidance with one seat in between. And two unrelated parties can board a gondola cabin at 50% capacity.”

Hendershott said the county also has received complaints about overall volume at the ski areas, including concerns about crowding on ski resort buses and complaints that frequently bring up the concept of “superspreaders” spreading the virus in places such as ski resort lift lines.

“But we are quick to say these are not superspreader events,” Hendershott said. “There are precautions in place, compared to indoors not wearing masks.”

Hendershott added that he thinks Vail Resorts has done a better job recently with controlling crowds. One recent morning, he observed employees using a megaphone to remind skiers and riders of the rules in the base area and to space out in lift mazes. That said, Hendershott acknowledged that later in the day, he saw the lift-line distancing becoming worse.

The county commissioners ultimately declined to make any changes ahead of Christmas but agreed to keep the capacity discussion alive, adding that they would touch base with all county ski areas about how operations went during the holiday week.

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