The ski mountains are open and Christmas is less than a month away. In Aspen, many businesses reliant on tourists and the dollars they bring during the snowier months will face a bevy of new challenges in a mid-pandemic winter.
“I think [the tourism economy] is hanging in the balance right now. I think our summer season was better than expected, but there are certainly concerns about what winter looks like now that we are ‘orange plus’ on the dial,” said Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort association, referring to restrictions imposed on businesses in accordance with the state’s COVID-19 dial.
While operating restaurants and retailers in the winter will come with its own set of never-before-seen hurdles, a retrospective on Aspen’s summer can provide some context for the potential economic impacts of coronavirus on the local economy.
Braun said summer hotel occupancy was “better than expected,” but still showed a drop from the year before. June occupancy dipped by 63%, July occupancy by 27%, and August occupancy by 20%. Major road closures due to the Grizzly Creek Fire also contributed to August’s downturn. Interstate 70 saw an extended shutdown, and Aspen was briefly turned into a virtual island when Independence Pass saw a multi-day closure in the same time frame. Braun said about half of Aspen’s visitors arrive on the roads.
While hotels may have slumped this summer, permanent and part-time residents helped buoy other sectors of the town’s economy.
“People may be surprised to hear that hotel occupancy was down when town felt so busy,” Braun said. “But we do know that real estate activities, both from that rental and the purchase really contributed to the fact that restaurants and retailers did better than expected.”
Sales tax data shows their revenues were only down by about 7% when compared to 2019. Some businesses reported numbers on par to the previous year, Braun said.
The cancellation of major events like the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Food & Wine Classic likely pulled millions of dollars away from the town’s economy.
“Certainly that spend and that ancillary spend associated with those events really didn't exist this year,” Braun said.
While events suffered, parts of the outdoor recreation industry saw a boost. Braun said equipment “from bikes to coolers” sold well, but guided activities such as rafting trips saw less turnover because visitors stayed in the area for longer periods of time.
The summer season itself was extended, as remote work and schooling allowed people to visit the area into the fall – a time normally that normally brings an offseason lull to businesses, some of which choose to close entirely.
Braun said September and October occupancy was higher this year than last, even after slumping numbers earlier in the summer.
Looking ahead to winter, Braun said staying open is top of mind for businesses in the area, as rising rates of COVID-19 threaten to bring down harsh restrictions mandated by the state – some of which could close restaurants and retailers entirely.
Braun pointed out that they’re also concerned about the safety of their workers and the logistical challenge of safely bringing them into work, as Roaring Fork Transportation Authority service reductions add a hurdle for Aspen’s large commuting workforce.
The arrival of tourists also threatens to increase the spread of COVID-19. Braun said this winter will require a balance. Businesses will have to encourage compliance with practices that stymie the spread of the disease – such mask-wearing and distancing. Those behaviors would allow businesses to keep operating safely and avoid the devastation brought on by closures.
“If we shut down the restaurants, hundreds of people are losing their jobs and this then becomes a mental health crisis along with an economic crisis,” Braun said.
Braun has hope in visitor compliance with those safety measures.
“We know people are coming and we want them here,” she said. “We just want to make sure that they have a safe and fun time while they're here. And if you're coming from California, you already, what locking down looks like. So most of the guests are very, very willing and able to follow our local public health restrictions.”