Purgatory Resort will bring summer operations to a close Sunday after an unexpectedly successful summer, said Dave Rathbun, the ski area’s general manager.
In March, Purgatory, like every other Colorado ski area, was in a state of uncertainty after Gov. Jared Polis ordered resorts to close because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But since reopening June 20 for its summer season, business at the resort 25 miles north of Durango has been “remarkable,” Rathbun said.
“Back in March, after we shut down, and then went through the whole spring wondering what would happen to allow us to get open again, I don’t think anybody back then in early June could have ever guessed what we were going to see,” Rathbun said. “Certainly, no one could have guessed how successful a summer it’s been.”
Urban residents wanted to escape their locked-down regions and spend time outside, he said. For many, Purgatory was a popular place to do just that.
Last year, Purgatory opened for the summer season on Memorial Day weekend. This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions and the time it took to put in place procedures to ensure staff members and visitors were safe, Purgatory didn’t open until June 20. Yet, as Purgatory approaches closing weekend, this year’s summer business was better than last year’s.
Safety proceduresThe most important step to ensuring Purgatory had a successful summer was modifying operations and instituting changes that would limit transmission of COVID-19, Rathbun said. Purgatory worked closely with San Juan Basin Public Health to think through those changes, he said.
“We were given very clear guidelines from San Juan Basin Public Health,” Rathbun said. “We worked closely with them and learned a lot in that process. We built our plans with their guidance and the guidelines worked, for the most part, exactly how we planned.”
The resort understands that being as diligent as possible when it comes to COVID-19 is in the business’ best interest, he said.
“We want to keep our business going, but our business is not going to succeed if we allow things to get out of hand form a public health perspective,” Rathbun said. “So, it’s been a really positive back-and-forth.”
Two of the resort’s main objectives in reopening included limiting capacity and eliminating activities that required close contact between employees and customers. As a result, Purgatory split the day into a morning session and an afternoon session and removed popular harness-based activities, such as bungee jumping, zip-lining, climbing walls and the sky hike. Tickets could be bought only online.
“Some of our bigger-name attractions we got rid of because we didn’t want to create that potential for transmission through close contact,” Rathbun said.
The resort discovered that despite the absence of the more “amusement park-like” attractions, customers enjoyed being at the mountain, taking in the views and doing the other activities, he said. Purgatory also learned through the half-day based tickets that many customers only want to be at Purgatory for a half day in the summer.
The only activity that had a cap on the number of tickets sold was the popular mountain coaster. The cap helped disperse customers and allow for greater social distancing.
Brian Devine, deputy incident commander for SJBPH, said large, developed recreation operations carry the risk of disease transmission when done incorrectly. They can attract large numbers of people who mix together with people from all over the country, he said. It was that activity that led to outbreaks earlier this year at other recreational hubs in Colorado, including ski resorts.
“Purgatory Resort developed and implemented a plan that reduced risk and made public health investigations easier when there were concerns this summer,” Devine wrote in an email to The Durango Herald.
An eye toward winterEven though it was a successful summer season, uncertainty lingers about what operations will look like on opening day of the winter ski season, scheduled for Nov. 21.
Purgatory hopes to make winter plans public at least a month before opening but does not expect to receive guidance from the state until Oct. 10, which might push back that schedule.
Some practices observed this summer are certain to carry over into the winter, such as buying lift tickets online.
“The one thing we can say is that anyone who is buying a lift ticket will have to do that in advance to ensure they get a ticket,” Rathbun said.
A large source of uncertainty related to winter operations is whether there will be restrictions about how many people can ride the chairlift at once and whether people riding the chairlift will have to be from the same party.
Rathbun hopes restrictions will be fairly minimal, saying chairlifts are outside and run twice as fast in the summer, 11 to 12 mph on the high speed lifts, which should allow enough airflow to reduce the risk of viral spread.
Ski areas also anticipate regulations to address how many cars can park in given areas, how many people can be on shuttle buses, how many people can be inside rental shops and what food and beverage operations will look like.
“People need to start thinking about their car potentially being their base lodge because you may not able to go in and warm up on demand like you did before when we’ve got potential limits on how many people can be in Purgy’s or Dante at one time,” Rathbun said.