The top 20 news stories of 2020
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — 2020 was a year like no other. A year completely mired in the effects of a global pandemic that caused fear and isolation, as well as 18 local deaths, but the challenges also served to ignite a spirit of resolve that once again proved that those who call Routt County home are generous of heart and step up to help those in need any way they can.
This may have been best demonstrated by Yampa Valley Gives Day setting a record for giving in 2020 with $1.1 million in donations collected for local nonprofits and Snow Bowl distributing over 20,000 meals this spring to displaced workers. It could also be witnessed in the lives of our frontline workers who courageously served the community despite putting their own health at risk, several of whom were featured in John Russell’s “Faces of the Frontline” series.
Looking back on the top stories of the past year, it comes as no surprise that COVID-19 dominated the headlines and the Steamboat Pilot & Today newsfeed. Of the top 250 most-read stories, more than half were related to the novel coronavirus. It also should be noted that online traffic on SteamboatPilot.com skyrocketed to over 15 million pageviews in 2020, indicating a strong appetite for local news and information especially when trying to navigate the new territory of a novel coronavirus.
Readers also were drawn to stories that revealed issues in the community that needed to be addressed openly and transparently and were the result of the investigative work of Pilot journalists, exemplified by this fall’s robust and timely Indivisible series focusing on equity, diversity and equity.
And the community also had reason to celebrate in 2020 when Tim Borden and his crew launched a spectacular firework at Winter Carnival and captured their place in the Guinness Book of World Records. And again, when the first vaccines arrived at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center just two weeks ago.
And now it’s time to look back on the top 20 stories of 2020.
No. 1 ‘Steamboat Resort closes amid coronavirus outbreak’ — March 14, 2020
Steamboat Resort is among a list of resorts that announced closures on Saturday, March 14, amid a global outbreak of a novel coronavirus.
“Based on guidance from Alterra Mountain Co. and the governor of Colorado, Steamboat is closed until further notice,” said Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp. Director of Communications Loryn Duke. “This continues to be a rapidly changing situation, and we may not have all the answers immediately. At this time, we are determining the best course of action for our employees and guests and will share more information on steamboat.com/covid as it becomes available.”
Alterra has not yet said when the resorts could reopen or if they will reopen.
The announcement came hours before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order suspending all downhill ski operations for one week.
“It is with a profound sense of pain and grim responsibility that I take the agonizing action that this moment demands,” Polis said of the executive order. “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.”
No. 2 ‘Middle Fork Fire explodes to over 3,500 acres’ – Sept. 7, 2020
Aerial mapping conducted Monday showed the Middle Fork Fire burning north of Steamboat Springs had grown to 137 acres overnight, according to fire officials on the scene.
The fire was initially reported as spanning about 15 acres Sept. 6, according to David “Mo” DeMorat, Routt County’s emergency operations director. The Middle Fork Fire, as it has since been named, is currently burning in the Zirkel Wilderness Area west of Lake Margaret between the Middle and North forks of Mad Creek. It’s about 10 miles north of Steamboat and smoke is visible from the area.
The fire is burning south of the Luna Lake Trail, according to Sean Carey, the assistant fire management officer for Routt National Forest.
The Middle Fork Fire eventually grew to about 20,433 acres before an 8-inch snowfall and cold front helped bring containment of the blaze in late October.
No. 3 ’Biggest in the world: Record-setting firework launch succeeds in Steamboat’ — Feb. 8, 2020
Steamboat Springs has officially taken the throne as the site of the world’s largest aerial firework.
Local pyrotechnic aficionado Tim Borden celebrated the successful launch of his almost 2,800 pound firework Feb. 8, which burst in a dazzling display of red and white over Howelsen Hill Ski Area at the finale of the Winter Carnival Night Extravaganza.
For Borden and his team, including Jim Widmann, Eric Krug and Ed MacArthur, those fleeting seconds of color and clamor were the culmination of seven years of hard work, hundreds of pages of engineering and countless obstacles.
In 2019, the first attempt at the world record ended in failure when the shell exploded inside the mortar without lifting off the ground. Guinness World Records, which adjudicated both launches, requires the shell to leave the ground and explode in the air to consider it a success.
“Most people would balk at the idea of coming back and trying to launch such a tremendously large firework just a year later,” Guinness adjudicator Christina Conlon said during an award ceremony inside Howelsen Hill Lodge following the launch.
“But this team displayed all the qualities that we at Guinness World Records love to celebrate,” Conlon continued, among them tenacity, perseverance and a dogged determination to achieve the seemingly impossible.
The 62-inch shell hurtled 2,200 feet in the air before it exploded, according to Borden.
No. 4 ‘1st Routt County resident tests positive for COVID-19; officials confirm community spread’ – March 20, 2020
A local resident has tested positive for COVID-19, according to information released March 20, by Routt County public health officials. The individual has been in self-quarantine since March 16 and is experiencing mild symptoms, according to the county.
The individual has not traveled out of the area, and additional contact tracing is now underway. Others who may have been in close contact with the resident are being notified.
This case confirms there is community spread, according to health officials. Community spread means that people have been infected with the virus in a given area, including some patients who do not know how, when or where they got the virus.
This marks the first case of a local resident testing positive for the virus. Routt County had only two previous positive cases, both of which were from out-of-state residents who had visited Steamboat Springs.
A group of seven Australians who had visited Steamboat also tested positive earlier this week upon returning to their home country. Officials could not determine where exactly they contracted the virus.
No. 5 ‘Routt County moves to severe risk level red of state’s new COVID-19 dial’ – Nov. 17, 2020
Routt County will move into level red — “Severe Risk” — on Colorado’s new COVID-19 dial framework Nov. 13, shutting down restaurants for inside dining, decreasing capacity at offices and gyms and entirely limiting personal gatherings.
Level red had previously been the highest level on the dial, but state health officials amended it Tuesday, adding another level purple, which Gov. Jared Polis described as the most severe stage meaning hospital capacity has been reached in the county.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment told Routt County officials they will revisit the metrics of the virus in the county the week of Dec. 18, though they could adjust restrictions sooner depending on how the county is doing.
On Nov. 17, the county reported 92 new COVID-19 cases, setting a new record for a two-week case count of 168 cases from Nov. 2 to 15.
No. 6 ‘School district hires former FBI agent to conduct investigation at high school’ – Feb. 3, 2020
A former FBI agent has been hired by the Steamboat Springs School District to investigate the culture at the high school related to the alleged mishandling of claims of sexual harassment made by student victims to the administration.
Jane Quimby, of Quimby and Associates based in Grand Junction, has been hired as the investigator.
District officials also announced Steamboat Springs High School Principal Kevin Taulman has been placed on paid administrative leave for the duration of the investigation.
“This should not be interpreted as any suggestion of wrongdoing but rather as being in his and the district’s best interest as the investigation proceeds,” Superintendent Brad Meeks said in a news release.
Steamboat Springs Middle School Principal Heidi Chapman-Hoy will serve as interim high school principal in addition to her current role while the investigation is ongoing.
Quimby will be reporting directly to the district’s attorneys, Caplan & Earnest, and not to Meeks — another step the district is taking to strengthen the integrity of the investigation.
“To ensure complete impartiality, Dr. Meeks and the high school administration will not play a role in the investigation other than to comply with requests from the investigator,” said School Board President Kelly Latterman.
No. 7 ‘Southwest Airlines announces start of daily service into Yampa Valley Regional Airport’ — Feb. 24, 2020
Southwest Airlines is the latest major airline to announce service into Northwest Colorado via the Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden.
The Dallas-headquartered airline announced Feb. 24 that it would begin serving the region with seasonal daily flights by the end of 2020, according to a news release. Initially, those flights will be connections from Denver International Airport.
Known as the nation’s largest domestic air carrier since 2003, Southwest will join Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, United Airlines, Alaska Airlines and JetBlue as the major carriers serving the airport in Hayden.
“Whether you’re a skier, snowboarder or just enjoy a winter wonderland, Steamboat Springs has something for everyone, and now you’ll be able to reach the region on Southwest with a short, easy flight from Denver,” Adam Decaire, Southwest’s vice president of network planning, said in the release.
Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., which handles negotiations for the Hayden airport’s carriers, was excited about the announcement.
“What an ideal partner to bring more skiers and riders to experience Steamboat’s famous Champagne powder snow,” Ski Corp. President and COO Rob Perlman said.
No. 8 ‘Colorado governor issues stay-at-home order for all 5.7M residents’ — March 25, 2020
Colorado’s 5.7 million residents have been ordered to stay at home under a public order issued by Gov. Jared Polis on March 25.
Polis called the order an “extreme measure” to combat the spread of coronavirus within the state. The order will take effect beginning 6 a.m. March 26 and last until April 11.
“The most important and responsible thing for you to do, for your state, for your country, for the lives of those around you and because it’s now the law of Colorado, is to stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary…” Polis said during a press briefing in Denver.
People should only leave their homes when absolutely necessary. Examples of such necessity, he said, are grocery shopping, seeking medical care or care for dependents.
No. 9 ‘Taking a stand: STARS volunteers speak out after more than 20 terminated’ — Jan. 26, 2020
In an effort to raise ongoing concerns to the board of directors, more than 20 volunteers with STARS, Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports, never imagined speaking out would result in the revocation of their volunteer privileges.
“Everything we are doing is in trying to address the organization’s issues in a positive way to make it better,” said Christopher Godfrey, who would have begun his fifth winter volunteering with STARS if not for being terminated on Nov. 20, 2019.
STARS provides year-round adaptive recreational programs for people with disabilities. Volunteers accompany clients skiing, biking, climbing, horseback riding and hiking.
On Nov. 14, Godfrey and 38 other volunteers, former volunteers and former board members signed a letter addressed to STARS board members. Eleven of the 38 signatories chose to remain anonymous.
The letter addressed a number of issues — lack of governance, excessive staff and board member turnover, disregard for volunteer input, operational risk, declining volunteer numbers and a retaliatory environment against people who tried to raise concerns — that have been going on for years, Godfrey said.
For the concerned volunteers, the tipping point came in late October when three board members were fired — first on Oct. 23 through a series of emails, which did not legally constitute removal from the board, and then, at a Nov. 4 board meeting when they were voted off unanimously through the proper procedures.
On Nov. 18, the volunteers group received a response to their letter signed by all seven of the current STARS board members.
The letter lauded the opening of STARS Ranch and the leadership of Executive Director Julie Taulman.
Two days later, on Nov. 20, at least 23 of the volunteers who had signed their names to the Nov. 14 letter received an email from STARS Program Director Mike Boone that read: “Over the past few weeks, a group of STARS volunteers have taken planned actions against the better interest of the STARS mission and organization. According to ongoing correspondence from this group, your name has been added to the list of individuals behind these actions. As a result, effective immediately, your privilege to serve STARS as a volunteer has been revoked …”
Taulman resigned from her position Jan. 24 in an email to STARS supporters. She had served in her position for 12 years and said she was resigning to pursue new opportunities outside of Steamboat Springs.
No. 10 ‘County implements 3rd public health order; workers, customers now required to wear mask’ — April 10, 2020
The Routt County Board of Commissioners approved and implemented a public health order April 10 that requires people to wear facial coverings and businesses to develop a COVID-19 mitigation plan.
Acting as the Routt County Board of Health, County Commissioners Tim Corrigan, Beth Melton and Doug Monger unanimously approved the public health order directed toward businesses and workers. It is the third public health order issued by the county since the local onset of COVID-19.
“Time is of the essence,” Monger said. “We are planning for the surge as we move forward spending county resources to take care of this.”
Under the social distancing requirements, all employees and customers must cover their nose and mouth with a nonmedical, cloth covering.
“It’s going to feel very onerous for people,” Corrigan said. But those measures will save lives, he added.
The order further stipulates that adults 60 and older should work from home whenever possible or their employer should provide additional mitigation for those employees.
No. 11 ‘Steamboat high school goes to complete remote learning’ — Nov. 6, 2020
Steamboat Springs High School will transition to remote learning starting Nov. 9, according to Steamboat School District Superintendent Brad Meeks, following a number of quarantines and positive cases in the school.
Routt County public health officials have labeled a recent Halloween party, which was attended by numerous local students in violation of county and state public health orders, a “superspreader” event. Since that event, over 100 students at the high school have entered quarantine, with additional students already being in quarantine due to their own illness or a family member’s illness, according to Meeks.
“We were told to expect an increase in quarantines next week due to (high school) students being present at a private Halloween part,” Meeks said.
There are also 14 high school staff members in quarantine and not enough substitute teachers to cover those positions, according to the district.
The school’s transition to remote learning, or Phase 2 of the district’s COVID-19 plan, will last at least until Nov. 24, according to Meeks, when the students go on Thanksgiving break.
No. 12 ‘Routt County reports 1st death from COVID-19’ — April 10, 2020
Health officials announced April 10 that Routt County experienced its first death related to COVID-19.
A woman older than 100 died of complications related to the virus, according to officials. She was a resident in assisted living at Casey’s Pond in Steamboat Springs. It is not known if the woman had underlying health issues.
“We recognize that along with this being a significant loss for those who knew her, it is also a milestone for our community that we hoped not to reach. Our hearts go out to family and friends of this individual and the Casey’s Pond community,” said Kari Ladrow, director of Routt County Public Health.
Casey’s Pond has had nine confirmed cases of COVID-19, including five residents and four staff members. The senior living community has had 118 tests administered.
Mass testing will now begin at the site, beginning with previously untested staff and administration.
No. 13 ‘Yampa River placed on call for only 2nd time in history amid 20-year drought’ — Aug. 26, 2020
For only the second time ever, the main stretch of the Yampa River is under water usage restrictions as of Aug. 26.
The move comes as a lack of flow in the lower portion of the river near Dinosaur National Monument means certain water users are not receiving their legally protected shares. The Division of Water Resources placed a call that applies to all water users upstream of the lowest diversion point, effectively placing the entire river on call.
“Once again, the structures located at the bottom of the system do not have enough natural flow to meet their diversion demands,” Erin Light, division engineer for the Colorado Division of Water Resources, said in an announcement about the call.
In addition to protecting senior water rights, the restrictions conserve water released from Elkhead Reservoir in order to protect endangered fish species, according to Light.
Under the call, any water user along the Yampa River who has a water right decreed after Sept. 1, 1960, will have to curtail their usage. Water commissioners are in the process of visiting head gates along the Yampa to determine if water can continue to divert flows, according to Light.
No. 14 ‘Triple Crown will not play ball in June’ — May 20, 2020
Triple Crown will not bring its tournaments to town in June, and Steamboat Springs City Council agreed to host a larger discussion about organized sports at its June 2 meeting.
The discussion at the May 19 council meeting stemmed from a May 14 article in Steamboat Pilot & Today, in which Triple Crown Sports CEO Keri King said the organization still planned to hold its youth baseball and softball tournaments in Steamboat as early as June 11, if state public health orders surrounding the spread of COVID-19 loosened and would allow it.
That stated intention drew the ire of local residents and a response that Council President Jason Lacy described as “vehement.” Council members received hundreds of emails in opposition to Triple Crown’s plans, and an online petition asking council to cancel Triple Crown tournaments in Steamboat was signed by over 2,500 people.
King spoke to the council and said he also had received numerous emails from residents about Triple Crown coming to Steamboat.
“I would never want to put an event in any community that would endanger that community,” King said. “I can feel the breeze blowing in Steamboat. It’s a torrent; it’s a storm. And it’s the most visceral reaction I’ve seen in the community.”
In response, King has proposed moving the June tournaments to August and shifting to a July and August timeframe. If the tournaments were allowed to come to town, he said strict mitigation protocols for players, coaches, parents and fans would be put into place and enforced.
Triple Crown ultimately did not hold tournaments in Steamboat over the summer. City Council voted not to seek a special variance from the state to allow the sports organization to bring its teams to town.
No. 15 ‘Blown away: Wind storm topples trees, downs power lines in Steamboat Springs’ — Sept. 8, 2020
Gusting winds and sleeting snow in Steamboat Springs on Sept. 8 made for an interesting return from Labor Day weekend.
The first snow storm of the season toppled trees, destroyed several structures and shut down power for numerous neighborhoods in and around Steamboat. Rabbit Ears Pass closed for more than an hour due to safety concerns amid blowing snow and icy conditions that contributed to multiple accidents.
Wind speeds at the Steamboat Springs Airport reached a maximum of 55 mph around 9 a.m., according to data from the National Weather Service in Grand Junction. Local meteorologist Mike Weissbluth, who runs the forecasting website snowalarm.com, heard of unconfirmed reports of gusts exceeding 100 mph on Steamboat Resort.
“This is unlike anything we’ve seen,” Steamboat Public Works Director Jon Snyder said in the release. “As fast as we’re opening roadways, new trees are coming down from the ongoing winds and gusts.”
No. 16 ‘Steamboat holds peaceful, emotional protest in response to death of George Floyd’ — June 1, 2020
“My heart is broken,” said Danielle Berkobien, a 26-year-old mother of two. She wept as she stood on the Routt County Courthouse lawn in downtown Steamboat Springs holding a hand-painted Black Lives Matter sign in one hand and her young son in the other.
“My heart brought me here,” she said.
Berkobien joined about 40 people in a protest June 1 in response to the racial injustice and police brutality displayed in the May 25 death of Minneapolis man George Floyd. Steamboat’s impromptu protest was another in a series of protests happening across the nation.
While some demonstrations around the U.S. have devolved into violence and destruction, Steamboat’s was peaceful. People held signs, flowers and their clenched fists in the air. They shouted the names of several black individuals who had recently died unjustly including Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Many passersby honked their car horns in support of the event.
The group also kneeled in silence for eight minutes and 46 second to mark the amount of time Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin kept his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck. The former officer has now been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in connection with Floyd’s death.
No. 17 ‘Investigation confirms sexual misconduct at the high school’ — March 10, 2020
A report from independent investigator Jane Quimby indicated sexual misconduct did occur at Steamboat Springs High School, but she said the behavior was “not rampant or horrible.”
Quimby, of Quimby and Associates, is a former FBI agent hired by the Steamboat Springs School District to investigate the culture at the high school related to the alleged mishandling of claims of sexual harassment made by student victims to the administration. She attended the Steamboat Springs School Board meeting March 9 to give her report in person. Her first update to the board was provided in writing Feb. 10.
“Yes, bad stuff happened, but things at the high school in general are very good and very positive,” Quimby said. “I don’t believe there was any kind of intentional malfeasance. … People are doing their best given the circumstances. I want to make that clear.”
Following 75 in-person interviews and a review of countless documents, Quimby said she identified 28 cases with a sexual misconduct component over the last four years. Seven of those occurred off campus, she said, three are internet- or social-media related, and 12 involved some type of referral to law enforcement.
“It has negatively impacted people — students — and depending on how you look at it, a small but very significant number,” Quimby said. “But in my mind, and I hope you will agree, one student impacted in this way is too many. We need to be committed to not letting it happen to anyone.”
No. 18 ‘Steamboat resort makes announcement on winter operations’ — Sept. 14, 2020
Alterra Mountain Co. CEO Rusty Gregory released a statement Sept. 14 regarding the company’s ski resorts across the globe.
Alterra, parent company of Steamboat Ski & Resort Corp., will focus efforts on controlling resort visitation levels to avoid overcrowding for the 2020-21 ski season, Gregory said in the statement.
Access to the mountains will be prioritized for season pass holders. The number of daily lift tickets will be tightly regulated, according to Gregory, and those will only be available through advance purchase.
Walk-up window sales will be eliminated, according to the statement, as well as the sale of undated lift ticket products.
“The health and well-being of Alterra Mountain Co. guests, employees and local communities has and will always be our company’s highest priority,” Gregory said. “Since last winter’s resort closures, our teams have been working to develop operating plans and protocols designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”
An announcement from Ski Corp. on winter operations at Steamboat Resort is expected sometime this week.
No. 19 ‘Routt County has record voter turnout’ — Nov. 4, 2020
Routt County voters came to the polls in record numbers Nov. 3 with nearly 17,000 votes being cast and turnout numbers representing nearly 90% of active voters.
“We have never seen this many ballots, and we have been doing this for several elections,” said Routt County Clerk and Recorder Kim Bonner.
The last few votes are still being counted, but as of Nov. 4, Routt County has counted 16,938 ballots, an increase of more than 17% from the 2016 Presidential Election.
The one surprise was the seemingly low turnout of voters to vote in person on Election Day. Election officials had said they expected a lot of people to vote in person Nov. 3, and they were ready for a surge, but it never materialized.
A large part of election preparations for the Clerk and Recorder’s Office was how to safely pull off an election during a pandemic.
No. 20: ‘Indivisible: A 6-week series on diversity, equity and inclusivity’ — Sept. 22, 2020
Indivisible was a six-week Steamboat Pilot & Today reporting project that focused on the issues of diversity, equity and inclusivity by exploring the divides that exist in Steamboat Springs and Routt County. The series also looked at the efforts underway locally to bridge those gaps.
The name for the series was rooted in the knowledge that people feel invisible for a variety of reasons, including race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, geography and income. By bringing these issues into the light, reporting on them and discussing them openly, the community discovered ways to break down these divides and build a stronger, more “indivisible” society.
The series published every Wednesday from Sept. 23 to Oct. 28, 2020.
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.
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DENVER (AP) — Gov. Jared Polis extended a statewide mask mandate for another 30 days on Sunday, but loosened face covering requirements for groups of people who are vaccinated against COVID-19.