By Jamie Leary

FRISCO, Colo. (CBS4) – Everyone marks the beginning of the pandemic a little differently. With Colorado’s first case in Summit County, many mark the arrival of COVID-19 with the abrupt end to the 2019-2020 ski season.

“I kind of get emotional talking about this part because skiing in Summit County. It’s our identity. It’s why people come here. It’s our economic survival,” said Elisabeth Lawrence, Summit County Commissioner.

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Lawrence just happened to be in a meeting for members of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns alongside Gov. Jared Polis when the news broke.

(credit: CBS)

“Pretty much all of the ski towns across Colorado were together in this room. I knew at that moment that what we just learned would forever change the lives of everyone in that room because we have something different at stake, because it was March, and in March in ski resort communities we’re gearing up for a really busy time with our spring break,” she said.

Lawrence admitted at the time, no one realized the extent of the sacrifice that would have to be made.

“The message that day, and the message from Gov. Polis — and it was the message from us in Summit County — is that life is normal. Go on living life as normal. Ski vacations will happen, we’ll continue to welcome people to our state,” Lawrence said. “We had that first press conference that night and we said, ‘Come to Summit County.  Keep your vacation. It will be fine.’ We were going off the best information we had at the time. That was March 5. I don’t think I slept until sometime in April.”

Inside of the Saint Anthony Summit Medical Center, where the first case was discovered, tensions were high.

“What kept me up at night was thinking like, ‘Well, how do I keep my colleagues safe? And how do I keep my patients safe?’” said Aaron Parmet, Infection Prevention Specialist at Anthony Summit Medical Center.

Testing at the time was slow-going.

“At that time we were reliant on sending out for government testing, and it was kind of a nail biting thing like, ‘Is this one it? Is this one it? Is it not going to be it?’” said Parmet. “My goodness, when we found out, it was a stressful situation, but we handled it very well and we kept everyone safe on some level.”

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The man in his 30s was visiting from out of state and had recently skied at Keystone Resort. Like many visitors, he had symptoms of what he thought was altitude sickness.

(credit: CBS)

“You know, we get a lot of visitors to the medical center suffering from that, and it turned out to be COVID for that individual, and they did well, but my gosh it was quite a lot of … apprehension,” he said.

Keystone and Breckenridge, two of the four ski areas in Summit County, shut down voluntarily. Then on March 15, Polis ordered all ski areas across the state to close.

“Knowing what was happening and what we had to do, it was incredibly hard. We have tons of snow and then we stopped our lifts. It literally felt like everything was ending. I mean, we just didn’t know,” said Lawrence.

While ski areas opened for the 2020-2021 season, even giants like Vail Resorts reported year-over-year losses. Lawrence said while tough, it created new, valuable partnerships.

“They were no longer this giant corporation. They had employees they needed to take care of, everyone had to work together,” she said.

The four ski areas in Summit County worked closely with county officials to ensure there would be a ski season.

“It really required tough decisions and really close relationships. I remember, in the beginning, I was in just a backroom on my cellphone, ‘What do we do? How can we do this? This is the latest information we’re hearing.’”

The new partnerships were essential, and not just for the ski season. Summit County was among the first to mobilize a drive-thru vaccination clinic. On March 5, 2021, it was among the first to distribute the first Johnson & Johnson doses in the state.

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“I think people when look back they’ll realize community is really at the heart of it and the most important thing,” she said. “We knew we could never again have a March like last year and so it was really important that we put parameters in place and thought through how can we can we keep these ski areas going.”

Jamie Leary