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'Unprecedented' Economic Uncertainty As The West's Ski Resorts, Bars And Restaurants Close

Photo of empty chair on a ski lift
Chelsea Naughton
Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah is one of many resorts across the Mountain West that is closing amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Restaurants, bars and major ski resorts have begun to temporarily shut down across the Mountain West this week in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19. But economists said it’s still too early to fully understand the breadth of how these closures will impact the region’s booming tourism economy.

“This is unprecedented,” said Ray Rasker, executive director of the nonprofit Headwaters Economics. “Nobody knows how to forecast it.”

The closures began over the weekend, when many ski resorts near tourism-dependent towns such as Park City, Utah, Bozeman, Mont. and Breckenridge, Colo. announced they were either suspending operations temporarily or shutting down for the season. In Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis ordered all ski resorts in the state to close at least a week.

On Monday, many major cities in the Mountain West, including Salt Lake City, Denver, and Missoula, Mont., announced they were closing bars and limiting restaurants to take-out or delivery to help combat the outbreak. 

“Something to this extent has not happened,” said Jennifer Leaver, a tourism analyst with the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah. “We’ve had government shutdowns of our national parks before that were very time limited and very specific. But COVID-19 is everywhere, it’s affecting everyone, and we don’t know when it will end.”

Leaver said economic data that details the impacts won’t be available for a few weeks, but she assumes that shuttered restaurants, resorts and dwindling travel due to the novel coronavirus will hurt tourism-dependent towns in the West — especially ones that rely on tens of thousands of spring visitors to the national parks in southern Utah. 

“They’re going to feel it,” she said.

However, there is a sliver of good news for towns that depend on the multi-billion dollar ski industry — resorts are suspending operations only a few weeks before the normal end of a season. 

“I would say anywhere from mid-March to April or May, it does start to slow down quite a bit,” said Leaver.

This means effects of COVID-19 on ski resort-dependent towns are somewhat comparable to a really early spring — it could cut into the industry’s profits and place hundreds of seasonal workers out of a job earlier than expected, but it’s better to happen now than in January. Vail Resorts plans to pay its resort workers for the next week and then reassess whether or not it will continue to suspend operations due to the virus. 

As for the shuttered restaurants and bars, Leaver suggested that cooped-up consumers could purchase gift certificates to use at a later date to help keep businesses afloat. She also wondered about a “surge” of tourism after the outbreak subsides.

“How much pent-up, all-at-once tourism are we going to experience when travel restrictions are lifted and we have this thing under control?” she asked.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. Follow Nate Hegyi on Twitter @natehegyi.

Nate Hegyi is the Utah reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, based at KUER. He covers federal land management agencies, indigenous issues, and the environment. Before arriving in Salt Lake City, Nate worked at Yellowstone Public Radio, Montana Public Radio, and was an intern with NPR's Morning Edition. He received a master's in journalism from the University of Montana.
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