Most Colorado counties left ski area capacities up to the resorts |

Most Colorado counties left ski area capacities up to the resorts

Skiers load the American Flyer lift at Copper Mountain Resort on Monday, March 29. All Summit County ski areas had capacity limits placed on them this season by the local public health department.
Photo by Ashley Low

The counties that set limits, including Summit, kept them secret

One of the biggest changes to business operations over the past year was capacity limits that were set to stymie the spread of COVID-19. While there were clear state guidelines for how many people could be inside a restaurant, gym or office, the amount of people who could be at a ski area varied from county to county, with some local health departments opting to set restrictions and others leaving it up to the ski areas.

For the 2020-21 ski season, Summit County Public Health officials set “target skier numbers,” which were managed differently at each local ski area. Those capacity limits were not made public.

Prior to opening for the season, Summit County ski areas had to submit to local health officials operating plans that went into detail about how the resort would work to protect public health, including how it would manage crowd sizes.

The Summit Daily News received copies of the plans from Summit County after submitting a public records request, but the portions that discuss capacity limits were redacted. The county has declined to publicly release the ski area capacity limits at the direction of the ski areas’ lawyers, who cite protected trade secrets as the reason.

Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott said in November that each resort’s “comfortable carrying capacities,” which are outlined in their master plans, were used to determine reduced capacities during the pandemic.

At Keystone Resort and Breckenridge Ski Resort, skier numbers were managed through a passholder reservation system. At Copper Mountain Resort, a parking reservation system was put in place. There were no reservations required to visit Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, but ski area officials explained in their operating plan that if the number of guests approached 85% of the target number, staff would close the parking lots. A-Basin lots have not closed this season, and Copper dropped its parking reservation requirement this month.

As virus case numbers spiked in November and Summit County moved backward to level red on the state’s dial, local health officials reduced capacity limits even further, prompting a backlash from Vail Resorts. In December, Vail-owned properties Breckenridge and Keystone submitted a request to the Summit County Public Health Department to remove the more restrictive capacity limits. Local health officials declined the request, but the additional restrictions were removed in early January when the county moved forward on the dial into level orange.

Skiers and riders gather at the base of Copper Mountain Resort after a day on the mountain Monday, March 29. While resorts did not have capacity limits set by the state, restaurants on the mountain did have to follow state guidelines for that industry.
Photo by Ashley Low

Capacity limits were a big deal for Summit County ski areas this season, but Summit’s health department was in the minority across the state for setting capacity limits. After reaching out to the public health department in each county that contains a ski area in Colorado, the Summit Daily News found that Clear Creek, Pitkin and Gunnison county public health departments also placed capacity limits on their ski areas, including Echo Mountain Resort, Loveland Ski Area, Aspen’s quartet of resorts and Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

Joni Reynolds, public health director of Gunnison County, wrote in an email that she worked with Crested Butte to limit capacity via a reservation system. As a Vail-owned resort, Crested Butte used a reservation system similar to Keystone and Breckenridge.

Pitkin County’s four ski areas — Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass — are owned by the Aspen Skiing Co. known locally as SkiCo.

“We’ve been working with SkiCo to monitor capacity and adjust capacity controls if necessary throughout the season,” Pitkin County Interim Public Health Director Jordana Sabella wrote in an email.

Other counties that responded to the Summit Daily’s request were Boulder, Chaffee, Eagle, Grand, Routt and San Miguel. While officials from most of these counties said they worked with ski areas to promote best practices when it comes to mitigating the spread of COVID-19, all said there were no county-imposed capacity limits and that any limits set at ski areas were self-imposed.

Eagle County, which borders Summit and is home to Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek Resort, did not set capacity limits, according to Kris Widlak, Eagle County director of communications. The Vail-owned resorts used reservation systems, but any limits to capacity were up to the resorts themselves.

“We did partner with Vail Resorts on their protocols to mitigate risks of exposures and also meet with representatives every week to discuss operations, challenges, success and ongoing visitor communication,” Widlak wrote in an email.

Routt County Public Health Medical Officer Brian Harrington wrote in an email that the county’s public health department did not enact formal capacity restrictions or incorporate restrictions into a local public health order because health officials thought the plan Steamboat Resort presented was sufficient.

“Steamboat Resort prepared a plan in advance of the season which already incorporated some capacity reductions,” Harrington wrote. “Routt County Public Health favored some capacity reductions and supported their plan.”

In Chaffee County, Public Health Director Andrea Carlstrom wrote in an email that the public health department meets weekly with its ski resort, Monarch Mountain, to review plans.

“By nature, Monarch has limited its capacity and has come up with creative strategies to do so without having to come up with a specific percentage or cap for outdoor recreation,” Carlstrom wrote. “It has followed other caps related to the dial and the sector.”

Grand County’s two ski areas, Winter Park Resort and Ski Granby Ranch, are not required to follow restrictions beyond what is outlined in the state dial, such as those for dining and retail. Boulder County officials echoed that only the state guidelines were enforced. Boulder County spokesperson Angela Simental said Eldora Mountain was required to “follow all regulations related to occupancy of outdoor and indoor spaces.”

Mike Bordogna, county manager in San Miguel, which is home to Telluride Ski Resort, said officials focused on limiting lodging capacities throughout the pandemic.

“Since we saw very limited cases coming from the ski area when people were actually skiing, and their indoor spaces are capacity capped, we have not seen the need to cap skier visits, but that was a consideration,” Bordogna wrote in an email.

Overall, public health officials in ski communities have said that COVID-19 cases aren’t tracing back to ski areas. San Miguel County spokesperson Lindsey Mills told The Colorado Sun in January that while the county was seeing an increase in visitors testing positive for the virus, transmission had not been tracked back to ski slopes, lines or chairlifts, and she instead attributed the rise in cases to post-ski socializing.

While most ski areas have kept their capacities under wraps — whether self-imposed or set by county officials — some ski areas have publicly stated their limits, countering the claim that capacity limits are proprietary information. Wolf Creek Ski Area stated in its 2020-21 winter operating plan that it would limit capacity to 5,000 people per day.

Outside of Colorado, Taos County in New Mexico released the capacity limits for its ski areas, which were allowed to operate at 25% uphill lift capacity, according to the Taos Ski Valley website. A blog post for Banff Sunshine Village indicated that capacity management tactics resulted in a daily reduction of about 50% of the number of guests that could be accommodated.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which has set capacity limits on a wide variety of industries, opted for ski areas to come up with individual plans that would be approved by their local public health agencies and the state.

“Ski areas are unique to each local community, so we felt individual plans, created with input from the local community, was the best way to proceed,” Jessica Bralish, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson, wrote in an email.

As part of the individualized community approach, Bralish pointed out that it was required that the plans address coordination with community leaders, local businesses, and lodging and housing entities, particularly in base villages.

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