By John Finefrock
Wolf Creek Ski Area could reopen in the coming days if it is granted a variance from the state health department.
Davey Pitcher, president and CEO of the ski area, explained how Gov. Jared Polis’ new Safer at Home guidelines, implemented this week, open a window of opportunity for the ski area to reopen.
“Interestingly, in the Safer at Home guidelines the biggest and actually the one thing that we’re asking the variance for — the new guideline says you can’t recreate more than 10 miles from your house,” said Pitcher, adding, “It’s probably in response to concerns of the mountain communities up the I-70 corridor. Irregardless of skiing or not skiing, I think those communities might have had some concerns about too many people coming out of Denver too quickly … Right below that section is a section that we can get a variance, and we’re very hopeful that this variance is allowed and we can open again on Friday.”
Wolf Creek Ski Area operates in Mineral County, which is in the jurisdiction of the Silver Thread Public Health Department, which serves both Mineral and Hinsdale counties.
Silver Thread Public Health Department’s Public Health Director Tara Hardy responded to a SUN inquiry on Tuesday about how long the variance decision could take.
“I do not know what the turnaround time will be once documents are submitted to the state. They will have the ultimate say in whether or not it is approved,” she wrote.
Pitcher told The SUN Wednesday that Hardy told him earlier in the day she had approved the variance and was sending it to the state for final approval.
He explained he hopes to get a final decision quickly to determine if the ski area can reopen this Friday.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment did not respond to a SUN request for comment on the variance approval by press time Wednesday.
Pitcher explained how long he thinks the ski area could operate if allowed to reopen.
“We think we can run two to three weeks, but every week we wait it does get harder to rationalize doing this with the expense of grooming and the expense of doing everything we need to do to provide a good service,” he said.
Pitcher explained that Eagle County recently obtained a similar variance.
“Eagle County obtained one last week. The governor’s office [and] department of health has allowed for additional recreation opportunities in Eagle County. Larger crowds than gatherings of 10. I think they’re up to 40 or 50,” Pitcher said, noting the variance took only a few days to get approved.
Pitcher also commented on how the ski area reopening could provide much-needed healing for people who have been under stress during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think everybody felt very ungrounded and uncertain of the future and the re-entry to some kind of normalcy post-pandemic — or not post ‘cause it’s not over yet — some semblance of coming back to earth and starting to figure out how to move forward as a community has to include how we recreate as a community,” he said.
Archuleta and Mineral counties
On Tuesday morning, Pitcher presented his “COVID-19 Reopening/Operating Plan” to the Mineral County Board of County Commissioners.
At the same time, Pitcher’s nephew, Chris, presented the same plan to the Archuleta County commissioners.
Archuleta County Attorney Todd Weaver noted that Archuleta County has no jurisdiction over the ski area, but was appreciative that Archuleta County was included in the presentations.
Pitcher explained Wednesday the Mineral County Board of County Commissioners had approved the ski area’s reopening plan.
The reopening plan details how the ski area will follow social distancing guidelines and what changes will be made to ensure safety for all involved.
The operating plan states:
• Cars will be parked farther apart than normal to allow guests to safely social distance from each other while at their vehicles.
• Social distancing of 6 feet or greater in the lift lines is required.
• One person per ski lift chair will be mandatory with the exception that family units that live in the same household can ride together.
• Restrooms will be limited to a maximum of 10 people at a time.
• Face coverings will be required for all parking lot, lift lines, first-aid room and restroom use.
• At this time, there will be no food or beverage service provided by the ski area, though Pitcher noted in his interview that could change in the future.
The reopening plan also included letters from South Fork Fire Rescue and Pagosa Springs Medical Center (PSMC), stating they have the capacity to respond to any calls from the ski area.
“If Archuleta County were to have an increase in COVID-19 patients, PSMC would, if necessary, implement its surge plan and communicate this information to Wolf Creek Ski Area,” the letter from PSMC CEO Dr. Rhonda Webb reads.
Pitcher explained he applied for, and received, a Paycheck Protection Program loan that has enabled him to put his employees back to work already.
“It’s giving us some relief for the next month or so,” said Pitcher. “We thought about using that resource to do maintenance … I came back to this idea that getting the community back up on the hill, getting our employees back to doing what they like to do in the winter — which is see people ski and be out on the mountains themselves — was more important than trying to get ahead on our maintenance program.”
Pitcher added, “It’s not without risk. We’ve communicated to the health department that we will stay in touch with them and if there’s any indication that there’s any beginning of a sign of COVID cases going up in any of the surrounding communities — whether it’s caused by this or just something happening that they don’t have a handle on — if they want us to close, we’re going to re-close and be prepared to do that at short notice if it makes it easier on our local medical personnel.”
No final decision on the ski area’s variance to reopen had been made by press time Wednesday, according to Pitcher.
Check www.PagosaSUN.com for updates on this story.