For a community that bases much of its economy on being a destination for outdoor adventure seekers and holds many businesses that operate during the summer months and hibernate through the slower winter, stay at home orders can feel like an existential threat.
So far, the Campout for the Cause music festival at the Meadows and FIBArk in Salida have announced their cancellations out of precautions around the COVID-19 pandemic.
Buena Vista’s whitewater festival, CKS Paddlefest, is still on for Memorial Day Weekend, but its social media messaging carries an undercurrent of cautious optimism that is shared by many individuals and organizations while making plans into the latter months of 2020.
Rafting outfitters on the Arkansas River, too, are moving forward under the expectation that the valley will have a season, albeit a potentially quieter one.
Under current restrictions, outfitters, who usually aim to get their seasonal operations going in May, hiring and training guides and transient employees, are forbidden to operate because they are not essential businesses.
Those Stay-at-Home restrictions are set to be lifted at the end of the month – April 30 at the national level and April 26 at the state level, although each of those deadlines have already been extended once before.
“None of us has a crystal ball that’s working right now,” said Kevin Foley of Performance Tours in Buena Vista.
Bob Hamel, the executive director of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association, a local alliance of 30 outfitters, said, “We’re trying to cover all our bases. A couple things that are in our favor are that the rafting season gets started in May, in late May … If we can get past the apex of the Coronavirus and people are free to move about, hopefully it’s at the end of May, early June, people with their pent-up energy are going to want to get out there.”
“It’s going to be really critical to see what happens with the virus as far as what happens in the end of April,” Hamel said.
Brandon Slate, an adventure specialist at Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Nathrop, said, “If people can’t travel here from outside the county, our customer base is going to be much smaller than usual.”
“We’re trying to just base decisions on the fact we have, and right now the facts give the federal shelter in place till April 30, the state shelter in place to April 26. So, the facts we have say we’ll be up and running May 1. I realize that could change, but right now we’re just making the decisions based on the facts that we have,” Slate said.
“The worst-case scenarios are hanging over us, but when you’re a business, you have to plan until there’s a reason to change that plan,” Hamel said.
Mark Hammer, the owner of the Adventure Company, said he usually hires around 38 seasonal employees who begin arriving between late April and May. The company is still shooting for a Memorial Day opening, but “right now, I’ve told them we are preparing for a season to start later than usual… They should anticipate coming in a little bit later, but working through the season with new practices and procedures in place to offset some of the health risks.
“With so much uncertainty right now, we are trying to prepare for a rafting season that will be upon us,” Hammer said. “We feel that we will be rafting, we feel that we will solve these challenges. How that effects my hiring is evolving every day.”
Hamel said that the snowpack in the Arkansas River Basin looks promising this season, and predicts that the market of small-scale, driving vacations will recover faster than the kind that require the logistics and investment in air travel.
“We know there’s going to be a little bit of a hangover, people getting past being cooped up. We know it’s going to take people a little while to roll again and look at their finances. If people have lost jobs there’s a concern that people will travel a little different,” Hamel said.
“The thing about a tighter budget is that it may do well for us in the drive market,” he said. “Instead of doing a 7-day cruise or island trip or something, a beach vacation, they go camping and rafting and fishing for the weekend, or a couple of days, even. There’s a lot of people in that market.”
For any of that to happen, though, “we have to be able to hopefully lift the shelter in place, the stay at home kind of directive. It’ll be challenging to operate if we’re still dealing with social distancing,” he said. “Staying 6 feet apart is kind of tough in a raft.”
Still, Hamel reports that outfitters have considered policies like “we would only take groups that were in the same family or something like that. It’s kind of drastic, but people are thinking about that.
“I think we can cross that bridge when we get to it, and I hope we won’t need to,” he said.
Hammer predicts that “we’ll see the biggest hit early in the season as people adjust to the new normal, which might be social practices, and adjusting to the uncertainty of the future and what that means for them financially. I don’t expect people will be that loose with their money. I think people will be a little bit conservative.”
He, like Hamel, is hoping for a period of national catharsis that could help the recreation industry.
“I do remain hopeful that perhaps the pent-up stress of staying at home and not working and not socializing could be a catalyst for greater demand,” he said.
Slate said, “There’s going to be a certain segment of the population where the second restrictions are lifted, they’re going to want to get out, but I think that a lot of people are going to ease back into being around people.
“If that restriction gets lifted July 1, it’s going to have an effect on the entire month of July for sure,” he said.
Hamel said that if restrictions keep outfitters from operating through July, a season may be difficult to salvage altogether, as families will be going back to school in August. Of course, schools throughout the country have also been impacted by COVID-19, and the timing of that, too, may be hard to predict.
While small groups traveling by car can be spontaneous and drive up into the mountains for a weekend float once the county is again open to visitors, if uncertainty continues it will force large groups, such as church group outings that book trips months out, to cancel, Slate said.
In the mountains on the other side of the valley, Young Life, which operates Frontier Ranch and Trail West has instituted a COVID-19 action plan that restricts clubs, events, meetings, travel, and suspends all ministry activities in the United States that involve face-to-face contact.
Currently, that directive extends through April 30, but the organization will comply with guidance from the Center for Disease Control, World Health Organization, local health agencies and will seek to mirror decisions by local school officials, according to a notice linked to the Frontier Ranch and Trail West pages.
Adversity is something that the rafting industry faces every year. Unexciting low water, dangerous high water, massive wildfires. The outfitters of the Arkansas Valley have seen all of those in just the past two years alone. The world hasn’t seen a pandemic in a century, but Hamel, Hammer and Slate see it as another challenge to overcome.
“Nobody in this industry has dealt with anything on this scale. So, yeah, it’s going to be a challenge,” Slate said. “These governmental restrictions are a challenge that we’ve never seen before and we’re figuring out on a daily basis.”
Hammer said “we are prepared for spending more money and introducing new techniques and procedures that will have to be adhered to very carefully.
“As it currently stands, I don’t think it’s going to be a problem. It’s going to be challenging, but I don’t think it’s going to be prohibitive.”