Jill Seager competes earlier in the season

Jill Seager competes in a ski mountaineering race at Monarch Mountain earlier this season. Anyone who wants to continue skiing at Monarch will have to hike up the hill and earn their turns after the ski area announced Saturday night it was closing for the season.

Monarch Mountain’s lifts are done turning for the season.

After Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order Saturday night forcing all Colorado ski resorts to suspend operations for one week to “slow the spread of COVID-19 and conserve medical resources in our mountain communities,” Monarch made the decision to close for rest of the season.

“I’m extremely upset about this,” Bob Nicolls, Monarch principal owner, said about the executive order. “We were not included in the discussions whatsoever.”

The ski area had already taken several steps to help its guests and its staff stay safe, Nicolls said. Monarch had removed about half of the tables in its lodge for proper social distancing, changed its interaction policy, amped up its cleaning procedures, closed its cat skiing operation and eliminated its singles lines so people wouldn’t have to ride with someone they didn’t know.

“We were managing the risk,” Nicolls said.

After Vail Resorts and Alterra Resorts announced earlier Saturday they were closing for a week, the governor made the decision for the rest of the state’s ski areas.

Nicolls said the bigger resorts are at a “much higher risk rate for transferring the virus” because people fly in to visit them. “Our folks are local and driving in; we don’t have fly-in traffic,” Nicolls said.

He also wondered why Vail’s lodges, restaurants and stores were remaining open. “Isn’t this far more risky to deal with indoors?” he asked.

As of Saturday, Monarch was planning on staying open and even planned to hold its slopestyle competition on March 21.

“It definitely caught us off guard,” Randy Stroud, Monarch general manager, said. “It was our assertion that outdoor recreation was a positive thing under these conditions.”

Nicolls made a similar point. “During this crisis, don’t we need to supply some outlets?” he said. “If we shut down Monarch, what’s next? The Rainbow Trail? Restaurants? Parks? Where does this end?”

Nicolls also stressed that his concern was not a financial matter.

“Even with the hard close, this is still our second best year ever,” he said.

Monarch had around 170,000 skier visits this season and was on track for 210,000, which would have broken last year’s record of 193,000.

The executive order only suspends operations through March 22, but uncertainty after that led to Monarch’s decision to close for the season.

“We feel it’s unlikely that these conditions will change or get better (by March 22),” Stroud said. “It’s just easier to cut loose and go.”

Nicolls said they plan to pay employees “a minimum of an extra week” beyond what they’ve worked to lessen the financial blow to them. He also said they would distribute food they had in stock and other supplies to employees.

People who want to ski can still do so at the resort; they’ll just need to hike. Stroud said since they’re closed, people don’t even need an uphill ticket anymore. “They’re more than welcome,” Stroud said. “They can just come and go.” Monarch’s parking lot will start closing at 4 p.m., however, so people will need to be out by then. Without ski patrol working, they’ll also assume more risks than if the mountain was open.

The abrupt closure ends what was on track to be Monarch’s best season ever.

“Right up until the coronavirus hit, we were having our best season by a long shot,” Stroud said. “We were having record numbers across the board.”

“I think it was irresponsible for the governor to make this decision unilaterally,” Nicolls said. “The door was just slammed shut in our face.”

“We understand the environment we’re in worldwide and the heightened level of concern with COVID, but we thought we could be a place of sanctuary,” Stroud said.

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