Why is this open but that closed? Summit County officials address discrepancies in regulations among industries
Many Summit County residents wonder why ski areas have been permitted to operate while restaurants have been closed to indoor dining. Others argue ski season must remain open in order to prioritize the economy and the mental health of ski town residents.
Summit County Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott cited risk factors for COVID-19 as differentiators between the industries, one of which happens primarily indoors during the winter. Those differentiators include duration of potential exposure, mask-wearing, ventilation and exclusion of symptomatic individuals.
Hendershott pointed out that the county wasn’t privy to conversations at the state level about what restrictions were set for each color on the COVID-19 dial, but he said the county has had more discretion over ski areas than a sector that is listed on the state’s dial framework, such as restaurants or retail. He said each activity and business poses a different risk for transmission of the virus, which is why restrictions are not consistent across the board.
“Ventilation (when) skiing is incredible compared to any indoor environment,” he said. “People are wearing masks on a ski hill, and in a restaurant you can’t; you can’t eat with a mask on. So not only are you indoors, but you have to take off your mask to eat.
“I’m deeply troubled by the struggles that (restaurants) are enduring, and like it or not, there’s not much fair about COVID right now. It’s really based just on the science, as I understand their decision-making, and what the risk level is. And the risk level with indoor dining is drastically different than skiing outside.”
While outbreaks among employees have been reported at many businesses, Hendershott said he doesn’t know of a specific case where a customer contracted COVID-19 at a restaurant or other business in Summit County. He said it is very difficult to trace exactly where someone contracted the virus because they might have visited various places during their exposure period. So restrictions are based more on what is known about how the virus spreads, which is through close contact — defined as 15 minutes within 6 feet of an infected person.
In an email, Hendershott explained that an unmasked person can spread a virus droplet 3-8 feet with a cough or sneeze and 2 feet with normal talking. The distance of this spread is reduced with a mask, and skis and boards create natural separation between people, Hendershott said. He added that ride times at most chairlifts at Summit County’s ski areas are well below 15 minutes and that leaving a window open in a gondola manages the viral load.
As for the exclusion of symptomatic people, Hendershott said people are expected to not come to the resort if they are feeling ill, but if someone was symptomatic with COVID-19, they likely wouldn’t feel up to skiing anyway. He said people without symptoms pose less of a risk because they aren’t coughing or sneezing.
Community members have varying opinions about whether ski areas should stay open and what restrictions should be in place.
In response to a Facebook post on One Man’s Junk Summit County, Keystone resident Cadry Pink said she feels the safety measures at the resorts are not enough and that if indoor dining and multiple household gatherings are prohibited, ski resorts should be closed.
“If we’ve reached such a high level of cases that restaurants have shut down, why are the resorts open?” Pink wrote in a Facebook message. “While they’re open, tourists will continue to flood the (area). I know plenty of us rely on the ski industry for our jobs, myself included, but continuing to have them open is irresponsible given the current situation.”
On the other side of the aisle, Brent Kihega wrote in a Facebook message that he frequently visits Keystone Resort and thinks it is doing great as far as safety precautions go. He said he feels protocols are being enforced.
“In line, you can hear employees on bullhorns reminding to cover nose and mouth, 6-foot separation for groups,” Kihega wrote. “Weekdays there are very few people on the slopes and lift lines, crowds are definitely down this year. (I’m) happy and impressed on the way early season is unfolding.”
Hendershott said law enforcement has been responding to complaints at the ski areas, mainly regarding people not wearing masks or following physical distancing rules. He said some local ski areas have revoked passes from people who have refused to follow safety protocols at the resorts. Public health officials are conducting spot checks at resorts, Hendershott said and have generally seen compliance with 99% of people wearing masks.
In-house enforcement is similar across ski areas: Education is preferred, but if noncompliance continues, passes can be revoked.
Copper Mountain Resort spokesperson Taylor Prather wrote in an email that guests have mostly been compliant with safety protocols but that the resort is prepared to address noncompliance through pass suspensions or revocations as well as referrals to the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
Breckenridge Ski Resort spokesperson Sara Lococo wrote in an email that guests in violation of any safety rules at Vail Resorts locations could lose their skiing and riding privileges. Arapahoe Basin Ski Area spokesperson Katherine Fuller wrote in an email that the ski area has not yet revoked any passes, but if staff sees repeated noncompliance from a guest, they would be asked “to leave and not return” if they are unwilling comply.
The following is a selection of comments shared in response to a Facebook post on One Man’s Junk Summit County asking for thoughts on ski area safety measures:
“They are too much, in my own opinion. We are skiing in the fresh air with masks, gloves and are almost literally Bubble Wrapped in a space suit.” — Colbey Conway Warren
“They seem to be doing everything they can, and 99% of the guests are on board. It’s still a lot of people gathering in the same space, but at least it’s all outside.” — Timothy Faust
“I think it generally feels safe to ski at the resorts so far, but you’ll still consistently see people not wearing masks in high-traffic areas and standing in line like they would pre-COVID.” — Joseph Wirth
“Too much. I was in a gondola by myself and told to keep my mask up the entire time. … Not gonna happen.” — Tara Soukup
“Better than expected effort from the resorts, except for the selfish, invincible skiers who refuse to cooperate by not wearing a mask while in line.” — Sharrill Hatley
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