Mammoth Mountain closed on a stormy day in mid-March last season, but this time it was not a weather-hold. Chair lifts stopped spinning and skiers went home. Though she didn’t know it yet, Rachel Rainey had just worked her last shift at the restaurant that has supported her skiing lifestyle for the past 17 years. And that was just the beginning of the economic challenges she would face.
The World Health Organization had declared a global pandemic. The NBA canceled their season and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Places with ski resorts like Blaine County in Idaho and Gunnison County in Colorado were early hotspots. Most North American ski areas closed their operations indefinitely and in the days that followed, residents sheltered-in-place. Ski towns asked visitors to stay away. Small businesses shuttered.
Rainey was also in the middle of moving at the time. Her rent increased just as she was filing for unemployment. Now more than nine months later, Rainey still does not have a job and unemployment benefits have run out. The small weightlifting gym she owns has been closed for five of the last nine months. The federal payroll protection program gave her just $500 in July. Debt is piling up.
“The situation is getting desperate,” she said, her voice trailing off.
Soon after getting laid-off, Rainey found another restaurant job and was expected to start working at the beginning of the winter season, but that restaurant was shut down too. Over the summer she cleaned vacation rentals part-time, but that work has also dried up since the state banned non-essential travel and closed short-term lodging in response to alarmingly low ICU capacities across the state.
Mountain communities have faced plenty of challenges over the years—economic inequality and high rent, climate change and drought and wildfires, overtourism, and sometimes a lack of tourism. The ski town workforce, who often work multiple jobs to make ends meet, are finding it harder than ever to afford the cost of living.
“The pandemic has amplified things that have been ongoing issues in a lot of ski towns,” said Heather Hansman a former editor at Powder Magazine who is currently writing a book about ski bums. “Everything is getting crunched on all sides.”
Outside Magazine columnist Marc Peruzzi wrote that pandemic mitigations could be good for ski culture—thinning crowds, preserving powder stashes, and bringing back the brown bag lunch and après ski tailgates. He hopes that skiing could become “a classless luxury” again, but any kind of luxury seems increasingly far from reality for the people who are trying to survive in a ski town.
Some small businesses did not survive the spring shutdowns. At least five restaurants in Mammoth Lakes, including the one Rainey worked at, closed permanently. And with reduced capacities in lodging and restaurants, many residents who work in tourism-based economies are unemployed or working fewer hours.
For most of the unemployed ski town workforce who were laid off in March, state unemployment benefits have long ago run out and federal pandemic relief programs under the CARES act expire on December 26. At the time of this reporting lawmakers have just agreed on another stimulus bill, but it will be at least a few weeks before the money reaches people and the aid is significantly less than the last round of government financial relief.
Even with ski areas currently open for the season and a vaccine rolling out health officials warn the worst is yet to come. With the upcoming holiday season, the U.S may see a “surge upon a surge,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a briefing in early-December.
As the ski season begins to ramp up many communities are limping into the time of year that drives the industry’s economy. Mammoth Lakes reported more than $3 million in transient occupancy taxes in its highest grossing month ever in January 2020, but the town is estimating $1 million less in tourism tax revenue for this upcoming January, for example.
In early 2020, the majority of U.S. ski areas lost critical spring break visitation that generally accounts for 20% of annual revenue, according to a National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) report. That period is only is surpassed in revenue by the Christmas holiday, which is looking grim. NSAA estimates that the pandemic has already cost the U.S. ski industry at least $2 billion, with projections reaching as high as $5 billion including the 2021 season.
Even so, many outdoor destinations had their busiest summer ever and retailers that sell equipment like canoes and kayaks, and hiking, camping, and fishing gear have reported record sales and supply shortages.
But it’s the hospitality industry that’s really suffering in states with high cases of the coronavirus and strict mandates like California, which has just gone into lockdown again closing restaurants and tourism lodging among other restrictions—even as ski areas are allowed to operate chair lifts.
There are no reports specific to ski town workforce, but employment in the leisure and hospitality industry is down by 3.4 million jobs nationwide, according to a recent U.S. Department of Labor report. And the restaurant industry, which is a lucrative job for ski town workers, is down 2.1 million jobs since February.
In Crested Butte, Colorado, Kyleena Falzone says that when she had to lay-off 140 employees from her restaurants the Secret Stash and Bonez, it was one of the hardest days of her life. That night she went home, laid in bed for a few minutes, and then got up and got back to work. She knew her community was hurting, and rather than wait for government assistance, she wanted to feed people.
Falzone crowdfunded $100,000 and used the donations to supply out-of-work residents with fresh food from the farmer’s market. She also hired back some of her staff and served free community dinner for 83 nights at the Secret Stash.
“We were hit really hard, really fast,” Falzone said. “All the tourists had to leave, all the hotels and restaurants shut down.”
In April, counties with ski areas had some of the highest per capita rates of infection in the country. Tourist-facing workplaces like restaurants and bars were considered high risk by the CDC and most closed temporarily.
As the curve flattened and businesses slowly reopened for summer, many restaurants moved operations outdoors. But winter presents significant weather challenges for business operations in a ski town. Crested Butte’s restaurants are currently restricted to 50% capacity indoors, but Falzone is watching cases rise nationwide and sees what could be coming.
“I feel like I’m in the middle of the island and the lava is slowly coming toward us,” she said.
Even after a busy summer, Falzone was only able to rehire about half of her staff. With reduced capacity there is only so much work to go around. Some of her employees were forced to leave in search of work or because they can’t afford the cost of living in Crested Butte anymore.
There is, however, a new kind of economic boom in many mountain towns.
Popular scenic areas have experienced a staggering increase in demand for housing as pandemic-related migration is doubling growth, according to an Oregon Office of Economics analysis. Mountain towns have become so-called Zoom Towns, as people who can work-from-home are fleeing urban environments for the great outdoors.
Real estate has reached record highs in many places with ski resorts like Truckee, California; Bend, Oregon; and Missoula, Montana. In Mammoth Lakes, California, sales were so high this summer there’s little inventory left, Mammoth Sierra Properties relator Danica McCoy said. There are currently just a few condos for sale and no homes listed for less than $1 million. Every property that comes on the market is seeing bidding wars.
“It’s insane,” McCoy said. Those who view the relatively lower prices of rural areas are driving up the market while the people who live and work in Mammoth are going to the food bank. “There is something that is definitely broken,” she said.
In Jackson, Wyoming, where the wealth gap is the biggest in the country, real estate has reached record-breaking demand this year, shattering previous year-end volume with $1.5 billion in sales in the first nine months of 2020. Jackson, like most ski towns, already has an affordable housing problem, Clare Stumpf, a board member for the Shelter JH housing advocacy group, said. “The pandemic has laid bare the inequities that exist here.”
Wealthy owners who enjoy their tax-free vacation homes in the Jackson Hole Valley have fled to the region to shelter-in-place. Some rental owners are capitalizing on high markets and selling, while others are finding tenants who are willing to pay higher prices.
“Evictions have been off the charts,” Stumpf said. “People who can work from home have a higher budget than someone who works in Jackson.”
The state has some of the least restrictive coronavirus mandates in the country, so restaurants and bars are open despite the widespread virus and a hospital that is nearly full. There are jobs, yet housing continues to be the biggest problem for people in Teton County who already spend a third of their earnings on housing.
Jackson resident Elizabeth Hutchings says she was forced out of her rental unit when the owner increased the rent by 30 percent. She and her housemates couldn’t afford the rent hike and decide to move out.
Now in mid-December, the hardest time of year to find housing in any ski town, Hutchings says the housing crunch feels like “an intense frenzy.” She is working two restaurant jobs and has a few leads on housing, but she still doesn’t know for sure where she will be living when she has to be out of her place at the end of the month.
Hutchings moved to Jackson three years ago for a park service job and fell in love with the area. In the past she’s lived in her Subaru and commuted an hour to make it living more affordable. Hutchings says she still finds the skiing and climbing lifestyle fulfilling enough, though she wonders how long the equation will work.
“Someone told me when I first came to Jackson that, and I think this is true of all ski towns, Jackson is a place you have to fight for,” Hutchings said. “You will have joyful and amazing time here, but when you don’t want to fight any longer you leave—It wears you down.”
Back in Mammoth, most of the town is shut down, but the lifts are still spinning and a few early storms have brought just enough snow to keep residents happy. Even with the economic hardship and a virus that is surging, the mountain is always there.
Despite everything, Rainey says she’ll wax her skis and slide around, feel the wind in her hair. “Skiing is the best medicine for me,” she said. “At least there is skiing.”
This article was supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
Monica Prelle is a freelance journalist based in Mammoth Lakes, California. @monicaprelle. Top photo: Eric Gowan