Gondola masks

Mountain Village officials recently discussed the ongoing struggle to enforce the current federal mandate that still requires people to wear a face covering on public transportation, which includes the gondola system. (Courtesy photo)

The Town of Mountain Village, which owns and oversees the operations of the gondola system, is continuing to struggle with enforcement of the current federal mask mandate regarding public transportation. 

Officials discussed the situation during the July 15 Town Council meeting, during which town attorney Paul Wisor explained the town is receiving complaints daily about the lack of compliance of some riders. 

“There are some issues with the gondola. People are complaining about mask enforcement, and it’s become a daily issue for staff and the mayor, and a daily issue for the county having to field questions about the gondola. We’re trying to do the best we can to address the issue,” he said, adding the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order “provides for denial of service or removal,” but “it has always been the town’s policy since COVID began to engage in an education program rather than an enforcement program. That’s been true since day one, and it continues today.”

The town addresses complaints as quickly as possible, but since San Miguel County and the state relaxed mask mandates in late May, compliance on the gondola system has been spotty, if not downright ignored. 

“We are trying to handle the flow of complaints, but obviously we need to do more in the view of the community, and I totally understand,” Wisor said. 

Enforcement has fallen to the town’s gondola operators, which isn’t necessarily in the job description, he explained. 

“Our gondola operators are not security personnel. It’s not within their capacity, nor within our expectations, that they engage in arguing with and removing people from the gondola because they’re not complying with the CDC order,” he said. “One, it’s not practical. Two, it’s not fair to those employees. Three, it doesn’t comport with our tourist economy that we are trying to promote here.” 

Masks are still available at all gondola stations for riders who do not have one, as the town has gone through 50,000 of them since May, and the town will continue to order them as needed. Signage explaining the federal mandate has been posted in every gondola station, as well as individual cabins, too. Plus, gondola operators aim to load passengers from separate parties, but are wearing masks, together. Mask-wearing riders who do not feel comfortable being in a cabin with someone who’s not wearing a face covering can tell an operator that they are uncomfortable and will ride in another cabin. The gondola continues to operate at 100 percent capacity.  

“Since the state lifted its mask requirements, it has proven to be more and more challenging to educate and inform riders as the summer has progressed,” Mountain Village Transportation Director Jim Loebe said in a news release Wednesday. “On behalf of the entire gondola staff and the Town, we want to thank passengers who continue to comply with this mandate.”

Wisor explained the town is going to have a “more active rider strategy,” including hiring more employees to help educate riders at the stations. The Telluride Tourism Board and county public health department plans to provide personnel in the interim. 

Signage will be changed as well to provide a more direct message that federal law requires wearing a mask for the entire ride on the gondola system. 

Mountain Village police officers will patrol the gondola stations in town more often to serve as a “bit of a deterrent,” Wisor explained, and to “relieve the obligation of the operators.” Wisor, as well as Mayor Laila Benitez, said the goal isn’t to write citations or arrest those who aren’t complying, nor has that ever been part of the town’s enforcement plan.  

“I just don’t think that picture on the front of the Daily Planet is what we’re looking for,” Wisor said. 

Though the town hasn’t collected any official data regarding riders’ mask-wearing rates, locals are more likely to wear a mask on the gondola than visitors, especially those who may only be in the area for a day or long weekend and not know the gondola system is a form of public transportation, Wisor added, but the longer people stay the more likely they are to comply. 

“Our gondola operators have had a tough year-and-a-half enforcing mask requirements, and they are doing the best that they can to ensure riders wear masks,” Mountain Village Public Information Officer Kathrine Warren said in the release. “Please comply with this rule to help keep the gondola running at full capacity and please be kind to our operators and others around you and mask up.”

The CDC mandate, which includes buses and airplanes, was issued Jan. 29 and is set to expire Sept. 13. But Wisor believes it’ll be extended, especially with recent concerns regarding the Delta variant. 

To submit any questions or comments, visit townofmountainvillage.com/contact-us.