Summit County reduces ski area capacity to prevent spread of COVID-19

With Thanksgiving week marking the unofficial beginning of the Colorado ski season and fresh snow blanketing the high country, resorts in Summit County are being hit with reductions governing on-mountain capacity because of new COVID-19 restrictions.

A new public health order issued last week by the Summit County Health Department stipulated the county’s four ski areas are “required to work with the local public health agency to further reduce their daily capacities relative to those designated in their existing COVID-19 operating plans.”

Keystone, Arapahoe Basin and Breckenridge are already open. Copper Mountain is tentatively scheduled to open next week.

The new reductions, coming in response to Summit County being moved to Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial, went into effect on Wednesday. Summit County manager Scott Vargo called the reductions “proportionate to the risk” and “meaningful,” but declined to provide specific numbers or percentages.

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Summit County ski areas were given permission to open for the season after working out COVID-19 operating plans in collaboration with the county health department in the fall.

“The original plans resulted in reduced capacity from what the ski areas are accustomed to,” Vargo said. “What the latest public health order identified was, we would as a public health agency have some more conversations with the ski areas and talk about making some additional reductions to those originally approved plan numbers. We’re happy to say they’ve been cooperative. In the same way any other industry or business is uncomfortable or frustrated by the different restrictions that are coming as part of these public health orders, they recognize the challenges we face and they’ve been cooperative with us in working toward some additional reductions.”

Summit County ski area officials have not responded to requests for comment about the capacity cuts or what they mean for users who currently have reservations.

The latest orders by Summit County health officials are designed in hopes of avoiding Level Purple, which could result in a full stay-at-home order and shut down ski areas.

“We lived through that in March and April and a good part of May,” Vargo said. “The economic devastation, the psychological devastation for our community is something we really are desperately trying to avoid. Our goal is twofold: One is to do the best we can around public health and safety, trying to make sure we are doing whatever we can to control the spread of the virus within the community.

“Secondly — and not secondarily — we’re trying to understand how can we balance the financial impacts within the community as we have to implement some of these restrictions. It really is a very difficult balancing act for us. We’re just really hopeful that the steps we’re taking now will help to preserve a really good and robust winter season for Summit County going forward.”

Vargo said local and state health officials find it “scary” that holiday gatherings could cause a greater surge in virus transmission.

“Right now, the order that’s in place has an expiration date of Dec. 18,” Vargo said. “That’s the date we are expecting to have a check-in with the state with regard to where our activity levels are. Perhaps at that point, we’ll be able to transition back into Level Orange or remove some of the restrictions that are Summit County specific (and) not part of the state’s Level Red. We will be looking very closely at our numbers from now until we get into the middle and latter stage of December. Our hope is that we start to see the trend moving in the right direction.”

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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