VAIL – When Vail Resorts early Tuesday announced it was closing its North American ski resorts for the season because of the new coronavirus, hundreds of workers in Eagle and Summit counties also learned they had 10 days to vacate their employee housing.
“It kind of sucks how they are kicking us out with all this uncertainty floating around, but what can you do?” said Mike Brodzik as he loaded up his car on Tuesday for a trip back home to Buffalo, New York.
Brodzik has spent the past 18 months in an apartment in Vail’s Timber Ridge complex, where the ski area houses some of its seasonal workers. He’s a team leader for a gondola crew and expected to leave his apartment in late April, after the mountain was scheduled to close.
Most seasonal employees in company housing were going to leave after the resorts’ scheduled closing.
Brodzik said he was going to wait for the forecasted snow to clear before driving home.
“I have to wait for this storm, I guess, and hopefully, they’ll have plows out on the roads. Who knows what will be in operation next week, you know?” he said. “It kind of blows. I was looking forward to the rest of the season. But I’m sure this is all new to (Vail Resorts), too. I’m sure they’ve never shut down for a contagious virus before.”
The closure unfolded over a matter of days.
On Saturday, Vail Resorts said it was shutting down its 34 North American ski areas for a week – including Vail, Beaver Creek, Breckenridge, Keystone and Crested Butte Mountain Resort – in an effort to stem the surge of COVID-19 sweeping across the country. Dozens of other ski areas followed the lead and closed operations. Hours later, Gov. Jared Polis ordered every ski area in Colorado to close immediately. And on Sunday, Colorado health officials urged residents of Eagle, Summit, Gunnison and Pitkin counties – all ski communities where the rate of infection is spiking – to “minimize their contact with other people.”
Two days after the warning that mountain residents should stay home and one day after Polis ordered all of Colorado’s restaurants, bars, gyms and other gathering places closed for at least 30 days, Vail Resorts said Tuesday the closures would extend through the 2019-20 season and told its tens of thousands of seasonal workers they were out of jobs.
The company employs 55,000 workers and houses thousands of them near resorts in Colorado, Utah, California, British Columbia, New England and across the Midwest.
On Tuesday, the parking lot at Timber Ridge was full of employees loading their cars, carrying bags down the flights of stairs and squeezing trash into overflowing dumpsters. Letters taped to Vail Resorts employees’ doors by the complex manager asked them to clear items and bikes stored beneath the complex’s staircases.
“With employee housing, it comes and it goes. It’s just how it is. Everyone I know is heading back to their home base,” one woman, who declined to give her full name, said as she packed her SUV.
A note on Tuesday told all seasonal employees they had until March 27 to leave worker housing, even if they were scheduled to work for resorts for the summer season. Year-round and seasonal part-time employees will receive pay for hours they were scheduled through March 22. Full-time, year-round employees will continue to be paid.
In a letter that urged workers to leave before collecting their final paycheck, Vail Resorts said: “We strongly recommend that you leave housing given the shutdown of much of the infrastructure within our communities.”
Ryan Huff, a spokesman for Vail Resorts, said any employee who lives in company housing and cannot leave is free to stay and “will be supported” as they plan to move. Huff said the decision to ask seasonal workers to leave comes from “the advice of our counties.”
“Consistent with the direction given by many of our local counties, we are asking all employees who do not permanently live in the resort, and who can return home, to do so,” Huff said. “We considered a lot of different options.”
Late Monday, Summit County issued a public health order that limited the size of gatherings and closed down eating and drinking inside restaurants and bars. The order also “strongly encouraged” visitors and “non-full-time residents” to return to their primary residence as soon as possible and self-quarantine.
Ethan Kavanagh took a year off from college in Ohio to come to Vail. He spent the past two months as a lift operator at the ski area. On Tuesday, he was packing his car. He wanted to leave before dark. He was going to visit family in Buena Vista and hopefully find some work. If not, he would head back to Ohio.
He wasn’t upset, but he wanted one more month to work on his snowboarding.
“These guys, Vail, they really do give us a lot,” said Kavanagh, who lived with two other roommates, including a student from China who returned home last week. “I’m definitely disappointed, but with the circumstances, it’s pretty understandable.”
Kavanagh hopes to get a job at a ski resort near his school in Ohio, where Vail Resorts owns four ski areas.
“You know what I’m bummed about? I’m going to miss Gaper Day on April 1st,” Kavanagh said of the annual – and very unofficial – on-mountain party at dozens of resorts that pokes fun at ill-prepared visitors. “I hear that is so fun.”
Daniel, a mountain restaurant worker who wouldn’t give his last name, was less certain of his plans. Talking with neighbors in the Timber Ridge parking lot, he was still pondering where to go. He had just stockpiled a bunch of food for the coming weeks. “I should probably get out of here sooner than later, but what am I going to do with all this food?”
He might stay with friends in the valley or down in Fort Collins. He’s been in touch with a buddy in Utah where he could stay if things devolve.
“I’m talking with a bunch of friends who are preppers,” he said. “They are actually really excited. They are calling it a prepper’s dream. They are like, ‘We have been planning for this for years.’”
Timothy Gardinier was packing to leave for upstate New York. He had spent the season cooking at Two Elk, the restaurant atop Vail’s China Bowl, where he also worked during the 2016-17 season.
“If I am disappointed, it’s that the higher-ups didn’t do anything earlier. We should have shut down weeks earlier,” Gardinier said. “Me and my co-workers have been talking about it for weeks now. Like, ‘Why are we still open?’ It’s definitely here and we knew it was here weeks ago. So I guess I saw this coming.”
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat and Vail native, hopes Vail Resorts considered the recommendation of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment that anyone who lives in or visited the state’s ski communities needs to limit social contact with others when it decided to send its seasonal workers home.
“I would encourage Vail Resorts to thoroughly think through this advice they have given their employees and make sure it aligns with the state and federal recommendations that are keeping us all safe,” said Donovan, who was waiting for a return phone call from Vail Resorts officials Tuesday afternoon. “And I hope Vail Resorts is passing along advice to everyone they are asking to travel back home and making sure everyone is aware of the CDPHE recommendation to minimize social contact with people in their home communities so COVID-19 doesn’t spread further.”