In Estes Park, no rooms at the inn

ESTES PARK — This tourist village at the eastern gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park has survived floods, recessions, government shutdowns and more.  But starting at high noon today, Estes Park’s economy will face what may be its biggest challenge ever.

In a move hoped to stem the spread of the deadly novel coronavirus, all overnight accommodations in the Estes Valley — hotels, motels and vacation rentals — must shut down through April 17, as ordered Saturday by the town and the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment. The only exceptions will be for local workers, long-term residents of short-term facilities and those who are ill or quarantined. Affected are businesses ranging from the iconic Stanley Hotel to modest motels and vacation homes rented out by their owners.

The sprawling YMCA of the Rockies Estes Park Center, located outside town limits, had announced March 16 that it was closing until at least April 6, with another decision to be made as that date approaches.

The proclamation also ordered that “there shall be no new bookings or reservations at short-term lodging during the pendency of this order. Furthermore, current reservations through April 17, 2020, shall be canceled.”

“This is an incredibly difficult decision made with the health of the people in our community in mind – our number one priority,” said Town Administrator Travis Machalek in a statement Sunday. “We hope that the sooner we take these measures, the sooner we can celebrate the reopening of our businesses.”

Although there was opposition to the drastic move among some town trustees and business owners, Machalek issued the proclamation Saturday after the national park was officially closed. On Friday evening, the chief of staff at Estes Park Health urged officials to limit the number of tourists in town, and one determined business owner put the pressure on.

Greg Rosener and his wife, Cydney Springer, co-own SkyRun Estes Park, a reservation system for 107 overnight units, mostly vacation homes and condominiums that largely are owned by people who “eventually want to live here, to retire, and want some way to offset some of their expenses,” Rosener said. “They’re mostly moms and pops.”

SkyRun Estes Park is the second-largest part of a Boulder-based system that also manages privately owned vacation properties in Steamboat Springs, Vail, Aspen, Dillon, Copper Mountain, Keystone, Breckenridge and Winter Park as well as in Canada, Mexico, Lake Tahoe and Park City, Utah. The Estes Park unit generated $5 million in revenue last year, Rosener said.

After being deluged by news of the spread of COVID-19, Rosener said, “I woke up in the middle of the night, going, ‘Oh, my gosh! I’ve got 40-some hot tubs — and what goes on in hot tubs can’t be a good thing.’

“I have 18 full-time employees, two of whom clean those things. I can’t risk those people. I’d feel horrible” if they caught the virus.

“Then I went to the grocery store and saw how everything was stripped out. I’d have 200-some guests with no toilet paper, no produce. And what happens if they get sick?

“So I decided I’ve got to shut this down.”

Knowing the impact would be huge, Rosener and Springer started canceling reservations for existing guests on March 16, refunding 100 percent of $50,000 worth of deposits.

“When I talked to my owners, I said I’ve got to protect my people,” Rosener said. “If it buries me, it buries me.”

But the phone calls and emails kept coming. “We still had people calling and begging to come to Estes Park,” he said. “They’re not stopping. And then I’m looking at what these guests would do, coming in from other places. And other places were staying open; I had my housekeepers come to me and say, ‘They’re not shutting down, Greg. What do we do?’ My competitors were renting the hell out of things.

“I think this is where private business loses its integrity with the rest of the community,” he said. “That’s where government has to step in and say, ‘No, we’re not going to let you charge $40 for a roll of toilet paper.’”

Rosener said he began to realize that what needed to be done went far beyond his own properties.

The average age of full-time Estes Park residents is 58, he said, and seniors are the most vulnerable to contracting the virus. Even though most people who contract COVID-19 do not become seriously ill and young workers are far less susceptible to it, he said, people with mild symptoms could place other, more vulnerable members of the public at high risk.

“Our three precincts here in the Estes Valley have the oldest per capita age group of any in the state of Colorado,” Rosener said. “We’ve got a great hospital here with great docs, but we can’t handle all those people getting sick.

“I’ve lived here for over 50 years, and I’m very involved civically,” he said. “I realized I’ve got to do my job not only to protect my employees but also the rest of the people in Estes.

“Then I started making phone calls,” he said, “but there was real reticence” among other owners of accommodations, retailers and town trustees — including Mayor Todd Jirsa.

“When I couldn’t get the mayor to back me, I said, ‘I didn’t want to do this, but you’re going to make me publish the letter I sent to my owners which outlines why we’re doing this.’ He said, ‘Great, Greg, that’s what transparency’s about.’ So I sent the letter to all the county commissioners.”

The pressure mounted on Thursday when the news became public that a University of Colorado Boulder student who had tested positive for the virus was in self-quarantine in Estes Park. That prompted Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent Darla Sidles to reach out to the town and Visit Estes Park to shut tourism down. She had closed visitor centers and eliminated entry fees earlier in the week but kept the gates open until early Friday because of a shortage of plow drivers to deal with a fresh foot of snow.

That’s when Jirsa wrote to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, asking him to close the park in order to limit the number of visitors coming through town. He sent copies of his request to Sidles, Gov. Jared Polis, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Cory Gardner and U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse.

The park officially closed at 7 p.m. Friday, and a news release was sent out an hour later.

“The health and safety of our visitors, employees, volunteers, and partners at Rocky Mountain National Park is our number one priority,” the release said. “The National Park Service is working with the federal, state, and local authorities to closely monitor the novel coronavirus situation. We will notify the public when we resume full operations and provide updates on our website and social media channels.”

The final straw — Machalek’s proclamation ordering the closure of overnight accommodations at noon today — came Saturday.

“I know it was a really hard decision for Travis,” Rosener said. He’s looking at a bigger picture than just me. He’s looking at town government services, sales tax revenue, budgets.”

On Saturday, while driving up Elkhorn Avenue, the town’s main street lined with gift stores, ice cream and taffy shops, restaurants and bars, Rosener noted that barely half were open. John Cullen, owner of the Stanley Hotel, agreed.

“There are fewer and fewer people up here every day,” Cullen said. “I bought five cases of beer from a local brewery here, and that was more than they’d sold in the last three days.

The Stanley perhaps is the property hardest hit by the closure decision.

“It’s a strange and sad time walking around the Stanley,” said Cullen, who also is president of the hotel’s parent company, Annapolis, Maryland-based Grand Heritage Hotel Group. “Next month is my 25th anniversary of owning the hotel — but now I’ve got the same number of employees as I did 25 years ago right now. We’re down to a skeleton staff of 45 or 50. In our peak season, which is in July, that number is above 410. So to see that type of economic difficulty to be experienced by 300 or more people who need these jobs is very sad and concerning.

“I certainly am as concerned as anybody about the population as a whole, with a special emphasis to seniors and those with pre-existing conditions that may be more susceptible to this pandemic,” Cullen said. However, he added, “I will say that I think there’s going to be an equal or greater health effect by shutting down the United States. When you unemploy 7 million people in hospitality that are mostly on a two-week hand-to-mouth type living, the health effects are going to be tremendous.  I don’t think we fully understand — and won’t for some time — the effects of the economic shut down on the broader population. I just don’t know how people are going to make their rent, their mortgages, their payrolls or anything.”

Even though the Stanley will be “closed and locked up drum tight,” Cullen said, he’ll try to keep as many of his employees busy as he can for a while with jobs such as deep cleaning, painting and renovation.

When that work runs out, Cullen said, the Stanley’s only remaining denizens will be the storied ghosts who are said to haunt the hotel’s corridors and rooms. “The ghosts who were here for the pandemic during World War I” — the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 — “are probably sheltering in place,” he said.

“I feel sorry for John,” Rosener said. “This is a big hit to him. I’ve got the same or more beds than he’s got but I don’t own the assets. I don’t have to pay the mortgages. I don’t have the restaurant, the bar. So the impact for him is a lot bigger than me. I’m sorry about that because the Stanley is the major economic force in this community, both socially and economically.”

That claim is backed up by numbers, said Cullen, citing a survey of downtown shoppers done last year by the Estes Park Economic Development Corp. that showed that 17.8 percent of them were in town to visit the national park and 17.6 percent were there to visit the Stanley. “And those were just people shopping downtown, not those in the park or at the Stanley,” he said.

That, Cullen said, will be the key to the hotel’s recovery. “It’s really different than the rest of the hotel industry because it’s such a destination,” he said. “Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley have their own draws outside of the normal world of transient hospitality. So we come back pretty quickly.”

Comebacks have been the story of Estes Park. Floods in 1976 and 2013 blocked the highways leading to the town from the Front Range urban corridor. Just as the town was trying to recover from the September 2013 deluge, the federal government shut down the park. And on July 16, 1982, the Lawn Lake dam in the park broke and sent a sea of hip-deep mud through downtown during the height of the summer tourist season.

“This community knows adversity,” said Rosener, who was among the town leaders who, after the Lawn Lake flood, brought in urban-renewal planners who designed the award-winning riverscape project behind businesses on the south side of Elkhorn.

 “In my 25 years here, I’ve gone through three recessions, 9/11, the 2008 meltdown and the 2013 flood,” Cullen said. “The Stanley comes back — but this time I don’t even know what the new normal will be.”

Rosener is more optimistic. “The summer looks amazing,” he said. “This summer looks like an absolute barn-burner.

“The key to this is how does Estes Park take this now and plan for where the coronavirus curve begins to come down and we end up having a season,” he said. “My whole take is, the sooner we can knock the top off this curve, the sooner we can start ramping up and hopefully salvage the summer. That’s the goal. We’ve got to get those groups back together that we had after the 2013 flood.

“But Estes Park will come back,” he said. “We kind of coined the name Mountain Strong after the 2013 flood. This community is highly resilient. It will be ready for business when people can feel safe again.”