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Less 'glitz & glamour': Mountain towns accommodate shifting needs during pandemic

The novel coronavirus pandemic has changed winter visits to McCall, the Wood River Valley and other resort areas that rely on tourism.

IDAHO, USA — This article originally appeared in The Idaho Press.

The holiday season typically is one of the busiest times of year for Idaho's mountain towns as vacationers flock to ski resorts, hot springs, hotels and other recreation opportunities. Like many things, the novel coronavirus pandemic has changed winter visits to McCall, the Wood River Valley and other resort areas that rely on tourism. 

Lindsey Harris, director of the McCall Area Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau, said the mountain experience has lost some of its "glitz and glamour" this year. There's a little less après ski and more of just the skiing.

"It is a stripped-down version of life right now," Harris said. "We're trying to get people to lean into that."

But visitors are still coming. A lodging search online for New Year weekend showed little vacancy in McCall, a welcome sign after months of declining bookings compared to pre-pandemic numbers. According to a local option tax report for the McCall area, used to measure hotel bookings, taxes collected were down nearly 11% heading into December. 

Families from Washington, Oregon and California are coming to the Idaho mountains to "break-up some cabin fever," Harris said. 

"I think people are coming to adventure and get outside," she said. 

McCall restaurants are still serving, as well, although in new ways, as eateries and bars grapple with fewer customers and COVID-19 regulations. A recent informal survey conducted by The Star-News, the local newspaper, collected information on how bars and restaurants have adapted to the pandemic. Restaurants are implementing new safety measures, such as temperature checks and air filtration systems, the survey found.

“We had to change in order to stay in business and keep staff and customers safe,” Steve Topple, owner of McCall's Ragazza Di Lago and the Blue Moose Drive Thru, told the Star-News.

Many local business owners want McCall to be busy, but other residents, who fear visitors will bring the virus with them, might prefer they stay away. 

"Like any town or city, you're going to have a mixture of feelings and opinions," Harris said. "We want people to visit, but visit safely."

The same is true in the Wood River Valley — home to resort towns Sun Valley, Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue — which earlier this year was the epicenter of Idaho's coronavirus outbreak. Out-of-state travelers brought the virus to the ski destination in the spring and lifted the area of a little more than 20,000 people to one of the highest infection rates in the country, per capita.

After the spring shutdown ended, the area saw a significant drop in cases this summer. Ketchum and Blaine County in July were among the first Idaho municipalities to implement mask mandates. Since then, permanent residents and businesses in the Wood River Valley have taken seriously coronavirus mandates, which is part of the reason the area is attracting visitors this winter. 

Safety measures are accepted by locals who recognize the Wood River Valley's economy is driven by tourism and can be fragile, said Ray Gadd, marketing director for Visit Sun Valley, the destination marketing organization for the area. Gadd said his organization has become responsible for imparting that idea to visitors as well.

"Yes, you're welcome to come if you're going to abide by the protocols and restrictions," he said.

Protocols include mask mandates and social distancing at ski resorts. Sun Valley Resort is following "ski well, be well" guidelines developed by the National Ski Areas Association, said Bridget Higgins, Sun Valley Resort marketing director. 

"Operating a ski resort during a global pandemic, there's no playbook for it," Higgins said. 

Lodging in the Wood River Valley was down by about a quarter in November compared to last year, Gadd said, but a different kind of visitor is coming to the Wood River Valley. People who own second homes in the area are staying longer, and more people are purchasing real estate there. Real estate experienced record sales this year, Gadd said. 

The Idaho Mountain Express reports the median sales price of a house in the local market rose to $660,000, up 39% from last year. Sales volume increased 53%. For local businesses, who were anxious about how many visitors the area would draw this winter, that's a good sign because "people are in town and spending money," Gadd said. 

"We draw a conclusion that they are people in their second homes, staying longer, versus visitors in our hotels," he said. 

Local businesses, such as hardware stores, are seeing new, unfamiliar faces, said Mike McKenna, executive director of The Chamber of the Wood River Valley — a result of new residents needing lightbulbs, snow shovels and other home essentials. Thanks to ample snowfall, Nordic skiing and other backcountry winter sports are thriving with equipment retailers are reaping the profits, McKenna said. 

Restaurants and bars still face challenges but business is much better than it was this summer, when the area was a "ghost town," according to Juan Martinez, owner of The Smokey Bone BBQ in Hailey. Although still not back to 2019 levels, business has improved recently, Martinez said. When asked what he would say to potential visitors Martinez said, "Be cautious, wear masks, and welcome to Sun Valley."

Ryan Suppe is the Boise City Hall and Treasure Valley business reporter for the Idaho Press. Contact him at 208-344-2055 (ext. 3038). Follow him on Twitter @salsuppe.

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