In April, the streets of Telluride and Mountain Village were nearly deserted while we all stayed home under statewide public health orders. In May, Governor Jared Polis shifted to “Safer at Home” orders. By June, the streets began to fill. Even in the midst of an unfolding pandemic, summer has proven to be extremely busy.
Under the “Safer at Home” orders, the governor allowed all lodging to operate at 100 percent capacity, if strict COVID-19 safety protocols were followed. Because of our remote location and limited health care infrastructure, San Miguel County’s public health director, Grace Franklin, opted not to follow the state’s lead. Instead, she advised the county’s Board of Health to create additional restrictions for short-term lodging (i.e. less than 30 days) in San Miguel County.
The Board of Health agreed. During the month of May, the lodging community worked under Franklin and the board to create a cautious and flexible plan for reopening. (The lodging plan is available for review at sanmiguelcountyco.gov under the Covid banner on the “business information” page.)
In broad terms, the plan divided the summer calendar into a series of three-week periods — enough time for Franklin and the Board of Health to collect and consider new virus data. Every three weeks, Franklin and the board assessed four regional metrics (transmission rate, treatment, testing and tracing capabilities) to determine if the overall percentage of lodging capacity should increase, decrease or remain steady for the upcoming three weeks.
In June, all professional lodging management companies, VRBOs and hoteliers were allowed to open at 25 percent capacity if they registered with the county and agreed to follow a number of additional protocols that extended well beyond the state’s stringent hygiene requirements. For example, as part of the pre-arrival package, lodgers must present all prospective guests with a document for signature pledging to uphold the five commitments of containment during their stay. The five commitments must be emphasized again when guests check in and also posted in each guest’s room.
The first three-week period passed. The metrics were encouraging, and Franklin and the Board of Health allowed lodging to open to 50 percent capacity. At the end of the second three-week period, the metrics were less positive. Franklin and the board opted to restrict short-term lodging to 50 percent of capacity. They have held to this 50 percent cap throughout the summer.
To prevent cheating on occupancy levels, the lodging community created a daily reporting system where each lodger submits hard copies of their check-ins to an independent third-party auditing company. This verified information is then relayed to the Telluride Tourism Board for public distribution via the weekly Peak Sheet newsletter. Lodgers that don’t comply risk losing their business license.
I also oversee the Lodging Oversight Committee, a group comprised of five members of the lodging community and San Miguel County staff. The committee is tasked with fielding questions and responding to complaints regarding breaches of protocols or occupancy percentages. Thus far, the group has responded to a half-dozen reports of protocol breaches by guests or lodging management staff and completed investigations into seven accusations of over-occupancy with one lodger found out of compliance. Response and resolution has been under 24 hours for all complaints. (You can reach the lodging oversight committee at email@example.com.)
Even with short-term lodging open at only half capacity, this summer has been busy throughout San Miguel County, especially in the east end. There are several reasons for this. First, campers and day-trip visitors are here at record levels. Also, a substantial number of part-time locals (aka second homeowners) opted to join the community for extended stays this summer.
How much longer will this boom cycle last? My crystal ball is cloudy. I assume the number of campers and day visitors will taper as the weather grows colder and some schools reopen. Current short-term lodging reservations drop from above 40 percent capacity to below 30 percent in the second half of August. Reservations for early September dip into the 20 percent range. The trend continues downward from there. Does that mean we’ll experience a fall offseason? To some extent, yes. But we may also find that COVID has established a higher baseline of local population, particularly in the east end of the county.
Clearly, San Miguel County has neither the desire nor legal right to restrict a person’s right to travel or visit their deeded property. The county can regulate lodging, however, and has done so in a measured and thoughtful manner.
I applaud Franklin and the regional lodging community for recognizing a problem, working quickly to find a solution and establishing a responsive self-policing committee. Although the system may still require refinements, it has allowed us to walk a tightrope this summer between the mandate to protect public health and the need to maintain our regional economy.