Aspen Mountain shutdown

Aspen Mountain, along with Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass, will be closed starting on Sunday indefinitely in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Aspen Skiing Co. announced on Saturday evening.

Aspen Skiing Co. announced on Saturday evening that it has been ordered by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to close for at least a week, starting Sunday, in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Polis’ order applies to all ski areas in Colorado.

“Never would I have believed that a global pandemic would force the temporary closure of our world-class ski resorts,” Polis said in a press release. “For those of us who treasure living our lives outdoors, sacrificing our fun is the easier part; but for those who depend on employment in our Colorado high country, the uncertainty of how long they will be out of a job is terrifying. It is with a profound sense of pain and grim responsibility that I take the agonizing action that this moment demands. I take solace in knowing that while we will be temporarily closed for business, we will be saving the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Coloradans in the days and weeks ahead.”

A SkiCo statement said that the closure is “being done out of an abundance of caution and with concern for the capacity of local healthcare facilities should community spread increase,” says a SkiCo statement issued just after 7:20 p.m. Saturday. “We understand that this impacts a huge number of people; our employees, guests and the community as a whole. We are working now to address all of these issues and will work with each of these groups to minimize the impacts where we can.”

All other ancillary SkiCo businesses will also close over the next week, with the exception of the Limelight Aspen.

“Our plan is to conduct some limited on-mountain maintenance to potentially have a limited late season opening if circumstances allow,” the statement says. “We are all skiers at heart and we understand the therapeutic nature of our shared passion. Extreme circumstances call for extreme actions, and we make this decision in coordination with our local and state health agencies. Let’s work together as a community to support each other and will all come out stronger on the other side.”

The SkiCo statement says that the company will “work with all of our guests who are currently in resort or who had future plans to visit this season.”

“We will be offering refunds or credits and will work with each guest for the best desired outcome,” the statement says. “If you are a guest in this situation, please be patient as we expect a large volume of calls and we will do everything we can to get to you as quickly as possible. You do not need to reach us right away to qualify for a refund or credit.”

Impacted seasonal employees will be offered two weeks of additional pay, while the company works to develop other ways to mitigate impacts of the shutdown on its work force.

“We ask that our employees stay tuned for further detailed communications and understand the HR department will be overwhelmed with calls,” the statement says.

As recently as 1 p.m. Saturday, SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said he was not aware of any plans to close the resort early due to COVID-19.

CEO Mike Kaplan told the Aspen Times Friday that staying open is the “right thing to do.”

“We see it as a vital public service to stay up and running,” Kaplan told Aspen Times reporter Scott Condon, noting the impact that a ski resort closure would have on local businesses.

SkiCo last week announced that it would work to maintain social distance recommendations by not loading unknown parties together on chairlifts or the gondola, while also increasing the use of disinfectants.

But as the evidence of community spread in Colorado grew, with many cases tied to ski towns, the governor’s office stepped in.

Vail Resorts led off the wave of ski resort closure announcements at around 4 p.m. Saturday. A statement from Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said that the closure, while painful for the communities that depend on skiing, was necessary to give “everyone the time to assess the situation, respond to ever-changing developments, and evaluate the approach for the rest of season, if we believe it is advisable or feasible to re-open.”

“This decision provides a pause for the entire ecosystem of our mountain resort communities,” according to Katz’s statement, which notes the decision was made in consultation with local health officials.

Vail Resorts’ properties include Vail, Breckenridge and Keystone in Colorado, Park City in Utah, three ski resorts in Lake Tahoe and Whistler in British Columbia.

Gov. Polis released a statement shortly after the Vail announcement praising the news.

“I commend Vail Resorts for taking this difficult, responsible step and urge other mountains and resorts to do the same,” Polis said in the statement. “Coloradans and our business community must continue to rise to meet the demand of these challenging times and everyone must do their part in stopping the spread of this virus. The slopes will still be there when this is all over.”

Just after 5:20 p.m., CBS News Denver reporter Matt Kroschel tweeted a statement from Alterra Mountain Co. that its 15 American resorts, including Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado, would be closing “until further notice” beginning Sunday.

Also on Saturday, the Alfred Braun Hut System announced that it would close its huts effective immediately. The huts are popular backcountry destinations in the mountains around Aspen where overnight stays are reserved months in advance. All reservations through April 30 are now canceled and guests will receive a rebooking credit, according to an email from the hut system.

Eleven people in Pitkin County have tested positive for COVID-19. Ten of those were tied to an Australian tour group that had contact with a 21-year-old woman who tested positive after returning to Australia earlier this month. County health officials said on Friday that they are ceasing testing unless patients are showing severe symptoms requiring hospitalization, after briefly launching an effort on Thursday that was aimed at testing a broader slice of the population. About two dozen test results are still pending.

Other resorts that had already made the decision to close before Saturday afternoon include Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, Jay Peak Resort in Vermont and Shanty Creek Resort in Michigan.

Other U.S. resorts that remain open are closing enclosed gondolas or aerial trams while others are encouraging skiers to ride lifts with only people they know as they adhere to social distancing guidelines.

Nearly every resort is promising extra cleanings of public spaces, more hand sanitizer stations and vowing to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, some ski resorts are touting the popular winter activity as a relatively safe option for diversion as concerts, sporting events and museums close.

“Skiers are pretty well covered from head-to-toe and being outdoors, the contamination factor is minimized,” Tom Watkinson, spokesman for Telluride Ski Resort in Colorado, told the Associated Press, before that resort announced that it too would close.

Snowbird resort in Utah said it will close its aerial tram but stay open, according to the AP. It explained in an online post that skiing is “beneficial for the soul to live and enjoy the adventure lifestyle — and this is particularly the case in times like this, when anxiety and stress are high.”

Avid backcountry skier Michele Dauber strongly believes that resorts should be shut down to contain the spread of the virus.

“This is why Disneyland closed. This is why cruises don't make sense. A ski resort is just a cruise ship in the snow,” Dauber, who has a house in the Bear Valley area in California and is a professor at Stanford University, told the Associated Press. “People are just constantly wiping their noses and they're wearing gloves so hand sanitizer isn't the issue."

Steve Clawson, a 57-year-old controller for the Denver Public Schools, went skiing for about six hours at Vail on Saturday. His plan was to head over to Breckenridge on Sunday. But as he made his way to the parking lot, his wife called and informed him of the news from Vail Resorts.

He was bummed his ski plans got dashed, but he understood.

“We all need to do what we need to do to help prevent the spread,” Clawson, who canceled an upcoming trip to Las Vegas because of concerns over the virus, told the Associated Press. “Everybody is taking a hit. Vail needs to take a hit, too, and I guess I need to take the hit of not being able to ski. I'm OK with that.”

He added: “We have to look out for our medical professionals. If we're not stopping the spread, our hospitals are going to be inundated.”

A bartender in the Utah ski town of Park City tested positive for coronavirus, Utah state health officials said Saturday. A county health official said he would not recommend shutting down the nearby resorts, but cautioned against traveling to the area. One of Colorado's first cases was a man in his 30s visiting Colorado on a ski vacation.

The coronavirus, deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization, has infected more than 150,000 people and killed over 5,700. The disease for most people causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness. The vast majority recover.

Jackson Hole in Wyoming closed its aerial tram and limited the number of people in gondolas. Mammoth in California said it planned to keep its gondolas half full and get rid of some chairs and tables in lodges to keep guests a safe distance apart. Powder Mountain in Utah ceased snowcat skiing because of tight quarters inside the vehicles.

Whiteface Mountain Ski Resort near Lake Placid in New York has closed its gondola and is limiting how many people are on lifts. The resort is also allowing only half the amount of people normally allowed at indoor facilities.

The U.S. Ski and Snowboard organization said Thursday all upcoming competitions in the United States had been canceled.

Resorts’ social media accounts were a mix of news about measures being taken to address the coronavirus and happy pictures and videos of skiers carving through fresh snow.

Powder Mountain in Utah posted a picture of a small group of skiers in a lift line surrounded by pristine snow-capped trees and mountains around him with the caption: “Good morning and happy Saturday from Powder Mountain! Get outside and take advantage of the remaining winter days."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Editor's note: A prior version of this article misstated how the Alfred Braun Hut System is compensating reservation holders whose stays have been cancelled. They will get a rebooking credit, not a refund. 

Curtis Wackerle is the editor of Aspen Daily News. He can be reached at curtis@aspendailynews.com or on Twitter @CurtisWackerle.