Businesses need to ’triple down’ to slow the spread of COVID-19
Even though cases are soaring in Routt County, business leaders share signs of optimism for the future.
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Business and government leaders joined a virtual round table with the Steamboat Springs Chamber on Thursday aimed at updating the community on how various industries in town are doing during the pandemic.
“Over the past year, I would say that we have fared much better than similar counties with destination mountain resorts,” Chamber CEO Kara Stoller said. “That is not to be forgotten, but now, we are worse off.”
The meeting was at times optimistic, buoyed by the promise of vaccines and a trend of declining cases in Colorado and the U.S. in general. But businesses need to “triple down,” Stoller said, so Routt County can see case counts decline and restrictions loosened. The Chamber sent out an email Thursday calling business leaders to action, adding they need to be on “Red Alert” to reduce the spread.
“We’re all part of it,” Stoller said. “Our small adjustments are what is going to make this happen. It is not just public health, it is not just businesses and it is not just individuals. We are all part of this, and we all have to take ownership and action.”
Dave Hunter, vice president of operations at the Steamboat Resort, said skier visits are down by about 30% this season.
“We’re OK with that this year,” Hunter said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be a record year coming into the season, so we prepared for that.”
He said the goal has been to get the resort open and remain open for the entire season. This has involved being quick to respond when employees test positive and closing outlets if necessary.
“Like everyone, we continue to learn and adapt,” Hunter said.
The resort is giving weekly updates to its staff, sharing how many employees have tested positive in addition to data about cases in the county generally, Hunter said.
“It is important that our staff know that they shouldn’t be afraid or even embarrassed if they have symptoms,” Hunter said. “They need to stay home, they need to get tested and they need to follow their quarantine.”
This season has been a “roller coaster” for lodging, according to Robin Craigen, president and CEO of Moving Mountians, a locally-owned rental management company specializing in luxury properties.
Craigen said his business saw strong demand in October, an encouraging sign of people’s willingness to travel, but that changed when cases rose later that month.
But, “the community turned it around,” Craigen said.
“The outlook at the moment, you would say that February and March looks good, but again, we are back into headwinds with the latest red alert that could be another major roadblock,” Craigen said.
Holiday reservations for Steamboat’s lodging properties were down about 25% to 30%, according to Craigen. He said hotels are struggling more than other lodging options, likely because guests are looking to avoid community atmospheres for more privacy and seclusion from others.
Another problem for the lodging industry, Craigen said, is the largely negative snow message. While offering flexible cancellations because of COVID-19 helped with reservations, some guests are not using it as intended.
“We have been seeing a trend of guests leveraging that flexible cancellation policy related to COVID to cancel their vacation because of the snow and general travel concerns,” Craigen said.
Restaurants have “taken it on the chin” throughout the pandemic, said Rex Brice, owner of Rex’s Family of Restaurants. He said aid from local, state and the federal government has allowed them to survive, but it is a Band-Aid on the larger problem.
“Our biggest challenges with potential closures going into the rest of the winter is the workforce being laid off again and then having to figure out how we are going to support those people,” Brice said.
Paycheck Protection Plan loans in the spring were helpful, Brice said, and he anticipated that every restaurant locally should be eligible for the latest round of aid. He also pushed other business leaders to embrace the Five-Star certification program, even though the benefits of the program cannot yet be realized.
Reflecting on his own restaurant group, Brice said they thought they were tackling the virus head on but later found out they did not do enough.
“As we looked at (the mitigation plan) and as we got cases, one of the things that we found out very quickly was that our mitigation plan was not adequate,” Brice said.
Brice suggested that other businesses might need to do a little more work on their mitigation plans to ensure what they are doing is effective. He also suggested that businesses try to contract trace themselves to relieve some stress from public health officials.
“We do the contact tracing essentially for public health and present it to them,” Brice said. “They are a small group of people with a huge job, and there is no way they can get to all of us.”
Kathy Elliott of Christy Sports reported her company has seen fewer customers in stores, but December sales were good.
“We owe a lot to the local communities for their support,” Elliot said. “We really are relying on the stores being open and guests coming in to shop.”
January sales are looking even better and having restaurants open even at 25% is helping retail stores, Elliot said.
Staff have shifted from a service mode to a sales mode, Elliot said, because sales are harder to come by with less customers. She said at Christy Sports they are working closely with public health officials when an employee tests positive to ensure they are doing everything they can to slow the spread of the virus.
“We can’t afford another shutdown,” Elliot said. “COVID fatigue has hit us all, but we’re continuing to work on everything that we can do to get case counts down.”
Steamboat Springs City Council President Jason Lacy said things at Howelsen Hill Ski Area have gone well this season. Sales of season passes at Howelsen are up 100% from last year, Lacy said, adding that day pass sales are up 65% as well.
Transit ridership is down with December 2020 seeing about 66% less riders, mainly because of bus capacity restrictions, Lacy said. On busier lines, drivers sometimes need to leave people.
“As far as winter tax revenues, the jury is still out on that,” Lacy said. “We are budgeting for a down winter.”
In-person events were one of the first casualties of the pandemic, and Strings Music Festival Executive Director Elissa Greene said events will likely be the last to return.
“We can’t pivot super quickly when it comes to putting together events that bring in hundreds if not thousands of people,” Greene said.
State guidance indicates the density of indoor events will likely not increase even if capacities do, so Greene said Strings and other event venues are anticipating social distancing and masking at indoor events throughout the summer.
Strings has artists confirmed for concerts in March and April, but those won’t happen if cases continue to rise, Greene said.
“The return of live music and other favorite Steamboat events is depending on our community doing the right thing,” Greene said. “We’ve had 10 months of already doing this, and we just have a little while longer, but if we can do it, we will have events at Strings and other venues in town.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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More COVID-19 booster shots are getting approved, health officials are saying people can mix or match the brand of these shots, and vaccines for children between 5 and 11 are closer than ever.