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Vermont Ski Towns Juggle Tourism Economy With COVID-19 Concerns

A ski mountain with no one on the slopes.
Nina Keck
An empty Killington Ski Resort on March 18. Vermont ski towns have been feeling the tension as tourism economies clash with concerns over visitors bringing more COVID-19 cases.

Vermont towns that cater to tourists and second homeowners are feeling torn. The taxes and other revenue visitors provide is vital. But in the last several weeks, fears have grown that people from large cities will bring in more COVID-19 cases and strain smaller grocery stores and medical facilities.

This week, Gov. Scott addressed this issue by suspending online booking for short-term rentals and camping facilities and ordering peoplecoming into the state to self-quarantine for 14 days.

To the west

Killington has a population of about 1,000 people, and town officials say they have about the same number of short-term rental properties.

While their inn and Irish pub are taking a hit because of the shutdown, Patty McGrath and her husband said they support the governor’s orders.

“In a way, it was a relief, because we were hearing so much about this, and you just didn’t know whether you were doing the right thing by staying open or closing or whatever,” McGrath said. “And this is where it’s important that you have leadership at the top – to be able to say, ‘Okay, let’s all do this.’”

Prior to the governor’s directive, Killington Town Manager Chet Hagenbarth said the tension between locals and visitors had been ramping up.

Looking for answers to some frequently asked questions about the new coronavirus in Vermont? Head here.

“I actually just had a call from one of the people who owns a market,” Hagenbarth said. “They’re concerned with the number of people that are coming, and that they have to quarantine for 14 days, and that is not being adhered to.”

A screenshot of an email.
Credit Nina Keck / VPR
An email sent out by Getaway Vacations encouraged people to visit Killington during the coronavirus crisis. The email was later retracted.

Things were especially ugly on social media last week when Getaway Vacations, a property management company based in Killington, sent out an email encouraging people to visit.

Dave Hoffenberg works in Killington and said a friend got the email and sent it to him in disgust.

“It irked me because right away, it said, ‘We offer an escape from your city to beautiful tranquil Killington,’” Hoffenberg said. “And then, ‘Killington has fully stocked grocery stores.’ It's just — flat out, the escape from your city is basically ... come to Killington.”

Fred Cercene owns Getaway Vacations and acknowledges the email was a mistake.

In mid-March, he said he’d gotten inquiries from people interested in booking extended stays in Killington and asked his out-of-state marketing team to develop an advertisement targeted to those customers.

“Unfortunately that email got launched – it was just really bad timing,” Cercene said. “It really should never have gone out.  And we sent a retraction immediately, and that’s really the story, we’re closed for business and haven’t been taking any reservations.”

Greg Cutler is a select board member in Manchester and a licensed realtor. He said he can understand both sides of this issue.  

“Especially where we are,” he said. “I mean, we count on our second-home homeowners and tourists.”

But he too strongly supports Gov. Scott and the actions of other nearby governors to limit movement state to state.

“You know, it's drastic,” Cutler said. “We're living in just unbelievable times, we’re living in history. We have to take care of each other ... is what it comes down to.”

Cutler said he thinks the big story for real estate in Vermont will happen after this pandemic runs its course.

“I think it'll be fascinating to see how many people decide they no longer want to live in in highly dense areas,” he said.

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To the east

According to Deerfield Valley Newspublisher Randy Capitani, the parking lot of the Snow Mountain Market, located along Route 100 in the shadow of Mount Snow Ski area in West Dover, is normally packed.

But it was empty on Tuesday, when Capitani told VPR he supports the governor’s directive to shut down inns and hotels and discourage anyone from coming to Vermont.

He added, however, that he hopes all of those tourists and second-home owners will return when all this is over.

“You know at the appropriate time, when the all-clear is sounded, come on back, we want you here for sure,” Capitani said. “We want you to buy our newspapers, and eat in our restaurants, and stay in our inns and lodges, and support our economy. We know it’s a big part of it, not just here but across the state.”

Laura Sibilia represents the Deerfield Valley in the Vermont Legislature, and over the past couple of weeks, she was hearing from locals who were seeing a lot of out-of-state plates.

She said tensions have been high in ski towns, and that she fully supports the governor’s directive.

“You know fear is not a wonderful social mixer,” Sibilia said. “It does not prompt the best behavior in society. So, people are afraid. So, we want to both help people have enough knowledge that they know how to protect themselves and feel less afraid. And then also make sure that people that are coming here understand what the rules are.”

A sign for the Snow Mountain Market and a dirt parking lot.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
An empty Snow Mountain Market parking lot near Mount Snow in West Dover on Tuesday. Normally, it's full.

But this whole idea of discouraging movement, and setting up an us-versus-them mindset, does not sit well with Dan Baliotti.

Baliotti owns the Coffee Barn Café in Dover. He moved to Vermont from New York after 9/11, and he said when the World Trade Towers came down there, was feeling across the country that we were in this together.

Baliotti said he’s not seeing that now.

“Being we are the United States of America, which allows us to be one whole entity, the idea of traveling from one place to another place, the concept of it being restricted, is bothersome,” he said. “I see a lot of provincial thinking: ‘Don’t let the people come here.’”

He added: “And this town and all the supporting towns that [have] tourism, primarily the ski industry, the people pay a lot of money in taxes. And if I needed to protect my family, to go someplace that was safer, that would be something you would be expected to do.”

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said the state hopes there is “voluntary compliance” among the inn and hotel owners to only house essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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