Analysis: Park City’s unprecedented winter of coronavirus-caused uncertainty stretches from slopes, to Sundance to health offices
By the evening of Sept. 10, 2001, the Park City community already understood the ski season, weeks away from beginning, would be unusual, and likely challenging.
The 2002 Winter Olympics scheduled the following February, during a traditionally busy stretch for the ski industry, were expected to draw some of the largest crowds in Park City’s history. The season itself, though, was forecast to suffer. Skiers and snowboarders, worried about Games-influenced price gouging, scarce lodging and the winter-long hassles of an Olympics, could opt to vacation elsewhere. The Sept. 11 attacks, coupled with the economic and security nervousness that followed, further darkened the prospects for the ski season.
Seven years later, almost precisely to the day and at a time when skiers and snowboarders usually are starting to consider their winter vacations, there was another jolt. The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy filing on Sept. 15, 2008, is seen as a defining event in that era’s financial industry crisis, and the convulsions in the stock market it triggered sent the economy reeling as the snows approached. There were suddenly concerns about whether the crowds would arrive in Park City for ski vacations, a luxury at a time of economic upheaval. And the corporate world, an important segment for the tourism industry, would have difficulty justifying slopeside meetings amid taxpayer-funded bailouts and rising public angst with Wall Street in late 2008.
In both of the ski seasons, those of 2001-2002 and 2008-2009, Park City encountered unprecedented challenges with the economic concerns so prevalent over the winters. Area unemployment was rising, private-sector investment was hesitating and unease was continuing as the opening day of those ski seasons approached. The winters were tough for many, but the community moved through them and emerged poised for growth. Park City would ultimately enjoy strong exits from the two economic downturns.
But even the winters of 2001-2002 and 2008-2009 did not arrive with the distinct uncertainty of today, or anything like it, as Park City days ago reached the beginning of the first full ski season since the spread of the novel coronavirus became the most terrible pandemic in a century, roiled the economy and altered the collective psyche of the nation. The wide-ranging changes to everyday life forced by the sickness, and the continuing economic hardships, will test the community’s longtime ability to weather the most difficult moments over the decades since the local ski industry launched in the 1960s. It could be the most challenging ski season since the inaugural winter of 1963-1964, when no one could predict whether the Kennedy administration-backed transition of Park City from a derelict former silver-mining town to a mountain resort would succeed. There have been winters that delivered poor snow totals, and there were localized economic doubts that seemed to persist season after season into the late 1980s, but the anxiety of today is different.
The municipal government is bracing for economic struggles. At the County Courthouse, health officials are worried about the possibility of rising coronavirus case numbers as the cold weather settles in. The mountain resorts have crafted extraordinary operations plans to account for social distancing and to combat the spread of the sickness, but success will not be able to be gauged for some time. Park City businesses, many of them small, meanwhile, are left to finalize plans the best they can without clarity regarding the ski season and with City Hall projecting sharply lower sales-tax collections in the winter as compared to a normal year.
Questions arise at the outset of every ski season. When will the snow come, and how much will fall, are typically the most important. But at the start of this ski season, the questions are especially dour and even more difficult to answer. There are unknowns that essentially cover the totality of the tourism industry that drives the Park City economy, and they will stretch from public health offices, to the slopes and into the screening rooms of the Sundance Film Festival.
“We’re as prepared as any business can be,” said Nathan Rafferty, the president of the industry group Ski Utah, expressing optimism for the ski season but recognizing the circumstances. “Certainly there are a long list of challenges.”
Some of the key unknowns about the ski season include:
• the spread of the virus during the winter:
The 2019-2020 ski season in early March was headed into the final weeks of what was a strong winter for the mountain resorts and the wider business community, a season that was not completely unexpected with the economy appearing strong and the financial markets having hit records by then. It seemed probable the statewide industry would post a record in skier visits for the second consecutive season.
The coronavirus at the time was notable but not of grave concern to the community. By the middle of March, though, the Park City area was among the first places in Utah to be stricken in significant numbers. The local coronavirus cases mounted even as Summit County health officials, City Hall, the private sector and individuals took steps to curb the spread.
Much has been accomplished in the months since the sickness spread through the Park City area in the spring, forcing businesses to temporarily close and sending the unemployment rate in Summit County to a numbing 20.4% in April. Mask wearing is widespread after there was resistance into the summer, the reopening of commerce has been undertaken with caution and people generally seem willing to practice social distancing.
But Park City and the rest of the nation are entering the last days of fall and then winter, a period that has worried health experts for months. More time will be spent inside, schools are in session and the coronavirus is spreading into the flu season, creating an overlap in the illnesses. Steps taken locally, like the numerous al fresco dining options and the Main Street pedestrian days, will not extend into the winter. In the Park City area, the health crisis could continue to worsen.
The seasonal workforce, typically with lodging in tight quarters, has arrived or soon will arrive in Park City, and the skiers and snowboarders are again on the slopes. Any consequential increase in coronavirus cases locally, particularly early in the ski season, would have an outsized impact since health officials could see the need for tighter restrictions at such a crucial moment. If there is such an increase, potential visitors researching Park City could give the safety of travel even more consideration when making decisions.
A disturbing upward trend in cases started earlier in the fall, prompting the County Courthouse’s health director, Rich Bullough, to tell The Park Record in early October the community was “absolutely, 100% in another surge.” Then, just before the opening of the ski season, Bullough warned intensive care units in the region topped 80% capacity as he talked of stress in the overall health care system.
Health officials on Nov. 20, the first day of the ski season at Park City Mountain Resort, reported there had been 2,018 known coronavirus cases in Summit County since the outset of the pandemic, resulting in 80 hospitalizations. The case numbers continued to trend higher in the weeks before the ski season opened, setting a Summit County single-day record of 46 positive diagnoses on Nov. 5. Four Summit County people had died by Nov. 20. Three of the deaths happened in quick succession in November.
And the concern for the ski season is not limited to the caseload in the Park City area since the community attracts a national and international clientele, although the visitor numbers from abroad this ski season will likely be negligible amid the U.S. troubles with containing the illness. Park City draws large numbers of visitors from states like California, New York, Texas and Florida. The tourism industry in Park City, then, must closely watch the coronavirus numbers and restrictions in important markets like those. Los Angeles County, California, long a target market for the local ski industry, on Nov. 20 led the nation in confirmed cases, according to tracking by Johns Hopkins University. Other counties important to the ski industry that had suffered caseloads that reached into six figures by then included Cook County, Illinois, and Dallas County, Texas, with places in Florida and New York also reporting some of the highest totals in the nation, the tracking showed.
As early as October, a prominent firm in the Park City area’s vacation-rental industry indicated it had received a string of reservation cancellations for the important holiday stretch between Christmas and New Year’s. Rhonda Sideris, the president of Park City Lodging, managing approximately 250 vacation rentals, has said the people who canceled reservations described worries about the recent increases in coronavirus cases in Utah and nationally. The Park City Chamber/Bureau in mid-November, meanwhile, outlined lodging projections that showed occupancy during the core months of the season is expected to drop sharply, with the forecasts ranging from an especially miserable 12% in March to a dismal 25% in December.
Bullough said the “only hope” for a solid ski season in Park City is a statewide mask order that is in effect alongside the continued practicing of social distancing.
“We’re surging at the wrong time,” he conceded.
• whether measures taken by the ski industry are successful:
The abrupt end of the most recent ski season in the middle of March, usually an especially busy time with spring-break crowds arriving on a staggered schedule, left the community stunned. There was still plenty of snow and many Parkites look forward to the last days of a ski season, in April, when the crowds are thin and there is sometimes an opportunity to perhaps even enjoy a late-season powder day without much competition to carve fresh tracks in the snow.
Although the coronavirus spread forced an early end to the 2019-2020 ski season, in some ways the timing was fortuitous for Park City and the ski industry. Much of the economic activity that was forecast for the ski season had already been transacted by the time the lifts were stopped, meaning the impact was contained at least for that season. The ski industry, though, quickly needed to start to consider possibilities for the 2020-2021 season with the understanding the coronavirus likely would greatly influence the operations of the mountain resorts that winter. The owners of Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley Resort in August and September outlined the blueprints for a socially distanced ski season. It will be a winter with a broad list of alterations to the routine day on the slopes.
Vail Resorts, the Colorado-based owner of PCMR, in August released the details of the ski season at its properties. The firm, crucially, introduced a reservation system for people wanting to ski or snowboard on any given day. Alterra Mountain Company, the owner of Deer Valley and also based in Colorado, in September indicated reservations were not needed as of the time the information was released. The reservation system at PCMR is seen as the most dramatic step of the ski season, but there will be numerous others as well at each of the resorts.
The plans will essentially touch all aspects of a ski day other than the precious minutes on the snow from the top of a run to the bottom. There will be physical distancing in lift lines, restrictions on the number of people allowed on the same chair or in the same gondola and the dining experience will be altered. There is a sense that many skiers are intent on returning to the slopes this season after the 2019-2020 season ended in such a stinging fashion. Rafferty, the Ski Utah president, talked of the importance of skiing to so many people and described the “magic” of being on the snow even while he acknowledged the unsettled situation this winter.
An outside environment reduces at least some of the risk of coronavirus transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, something that could be one of the draws of the mountain resorts. And, after eight months, wearing masks and practicing social distancing is accepted by many, meaning that some of the measures at the mountain resorts this ski season may not be seen as bothersome at this point in the pandemic.
“We know there’s a lot of pent-up demand,” Todd Shallan, who was until recently the president and chief operating officer of Deer Valley, said last summer during a City Hall-hosted online event. “We just want to make sure that we accommodate that demand as safely as we can.”
• whether Sundance will be showtime
At 11 days in length, Sundance unfolds over just a brief portion of the ski season, usually in January and sometimes reaching into early February. But the length of Sundance belies the importance of the festival to the Park City economy.
Sundance this year was staged in the weeks before the international spread of the sickness became devastating. The film industry left Park City on Feb. 2 intending to gather again in 2021 like any other year. That will not happen, though, and Sundance will hardly resemble the spectacle that it has become as one of the world’s top marketplaces of independent films.
Park City leaders and Sundance officials, realizing changes were needed to account for the spread of the illness, last summer crafted a radically altered plan for the festival. It will be shortened to seven days, and Sundance will spread screenings across the nation, meaning Park City’s importance as the festival base will be greatly diminished for a year. There will be fewer screening rooms in Park City and the capacity of the theaters will be reduced.
A steep drop in business during what is normally an especially lucrative period is certain. A study after the 2020 event found the economic impact to the state gross domestic product was nearly $167.5 million, much of that generated in Park City and surrounding Summit County. The festival’s contributions to the state economy included 2,730 jobs for people who live in Utah and $88 million in wages in Utah, according to the Y2 Analytics study. The monies are spread through industries like lodging, restaurant and transportation, and people across the income spectrum generally enjoy the annual bounty from Hollywood. It is inconceivable at this point that Sundance would generate anywhere near the normal impact, and the hurt would move through the economy in a similar manner as the benefits would in a typical year.
A side industry during Sundance — short-term Main Street building rentals — is also expected to suffer, if not collapse. Corporate interests usually rent space on Main Street, sometimes for just the opening weekend of Sundance, providing them highly visible marketing opportunities. Some of the deals are believed to reach well into six figures. A drop in that side industry would further reverberate through the economy with the building owners and year-round tenants that enter into the agreements with the corporate interests suffering the most.
Another film festival that coincides with Sundance, and one that has built a following in Park City and on the circuit, Slamdance, has opted against staging the event locally in 2021. Slamdance instead will be held in Joshua Tree, California, and online, another hit to the winter even though the impact will be contained since Slamdance is significantly smaller than Sundance.
“We hope for better news about the pandemic by January 2021, but we also must plan for the greatest challenges. We have discovered that the planning is in fact an invitation to think differently about the form of the festival,” Tabitha Jackson, the director of Sundance, said in a late-June letter outlining the intentions for the event in 2021.
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