As Chaffee County and the rest of the country begin to open up after months of shutting down to slow the spread of COVID-19, Buena Vista businesses are beginning to see a welcome rebound.
While tourism-focused businesses are reporting that the town is as busy as it’s ever been, they share concerns that the same influx of visitors may lead to another outbreak of the viral respiratory illness that will put BV’s economy right back where it was in April – stagnant and uncertain.
“After enduring several months of quarantine, I think people are looking for opportunities to get back outside and recreating,” said Brian Ellis, new owner of Wilderness Aware rafting. “I think people that had trips booked to Europe or cruises, that type of vacation are looking elsewhere for those kinds of opportunities.”
Adam Caimi, owner of Monumental Expeditions, said that his company benefitted from being a small outfitter through the uncertain spring.
The snowmelt this year is making for river flows that are far closer to average than last year’s big water, which is also a boon for the industry in a time when fewer mixed groups of people are allowed in rafts.
“We’ve had a good water season, but we’re not going to have crazy high water like we did last year. Which is good, because typically when the water’s high, you want more people in the raft. You want the weight, the paddle power to crash through those big waves,” Caimi said.
Ellis said that Wilderness Aware missed out on several of its larger summer camp contracts this year, but that more families tend to be booking trips.
“As restrictions get lifted, people become more secure leaving close to home, and maybe they don’t want to go too far from home. Coming up here to Chaffee County is a great way to do that without going too far from home,” Caimi said.
“Things could also go the other way. We start to get another outbreak because everyone’s up here and we’ve got people coming up from other states, and then things start getting shut down again. So there’s always that risk,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for us and all the companies and businesses to really follow the restrictions or recommendations set forth by the health department.”
At BV Jeeps and ATVs on U.S. Highway 24, the company that rents out off-roading vehicles, was initially concerned after zero revenue in the month of May and a slow start to June.
But “the next thing we knew, we were (and still are) struggling to keep up with the demand of rentals. Business has exploded,” said owner Jessica Smith. “Our sales for the month of June are up 46% from this time last year. We have been seeing more renters from within the state of Colorado vs out of state.
“Typically we don’t see that until the first of September, when schools are back in session and the locals are avoiding the tourists,” Smith said. “I do hope the trend continues.”
The cycling industry is also seeing a huge boom, said Buena Vista’s Matt Wells, owner of Black Burro Bikes in South Main. That may be because bike riding is a naturally socially distant activity, even when it’s done in groups.
“I think that people feel really safe riding a bike,” Wells said. “It’s out in the open air, you’re usually spaced out pretty far away from one another, just due to the nature of our trails.”
In Colorado, bike shops were deemed essential businesses, so Black Burro never shut its doors. Even so, the shutdown period was “very disconcerting initially,” he said.
“Right off the bat we saw an initial small surge in business, then an extreme decline as people got concerned, scared, didn’t know exactly what was going on,” he said. “Most of March was totally up in the air.”
Fast forward to now. “If I had a crystal ball, or if I had been a smarter businessman, I would have taken out a loan in January or February and bought every bike that anyone would sell me, and we would still be sold out of bikes right now, based on call volume, walk-in sales or walk-in requests,” Wells said.
At BV E-Bike rentals on U.S. Highway 24, “We’re busier than we ever planned to be,” said co-owner Nancy Zeller.
“We thought we weren’t going to have any business at all,” she said. In addition to waves of Texans escaping the heat of the Lonestar State, Zeller also attributes the bump in business to families choosing to forgo 37,000 feet and sticking closer to home at 8,000 feet.
“I just had a family of nine call to reserve bikes because they had to cancel an European family reunion, and I’ve heard several people cancel their trips to Hawaii or wherever they’re going,” she said. “It seems like the tourism business is going to be better for us this year as long as Coronavirus doesn’t rear it’s ugly head here.”
Zeller is also seeing a new type of clientele. When BV E-Bikes first opened, it mostly catered to Baby Boomers, “but this year we’re getting a lot of 30-somethings, 40-somethings and families riding with us.”
Still, the Zellers are “really concerned, and we’re really concerned for the residents of the county as well,” that a Coronavirus outbreak may hit Chaffee County and prompt another shutdown.
“It’s a little scary,” Wells said. “We live in this small town, kinda isolated in the mountains, and we have a really tight-knit community here. So during this whole COVID crisis ... I felt like we were pretty safe in our small community. Now that the floodgates are open and everyone’s coming here, the trails, town, restaurants are open back up again, it seems like it’s busier than I ever remember it.
“Which is obviously good, because it’s allowing them to rebound from the time when they were forced to close, but it also is a little scary at the same time,” he said. “We’re not taking any chances. I don’t want to get sick, and I certainly don’t want anyone that’s working for me to get sick, and I definitely don’t want a customer that trusts us to get sick.”