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A long line of traffic is halted at the Ousel Falls Road and Montana Highway 64 stoplight. According to Montana Department of Transportation reports, traffic counts on MT 64 in early July were only down approximately 8 percent from 2019, despite the circumstances of the pandemic. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Even as COVID-19 cases rise in Gallatin County, business is booming

By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – Everyone’s talking about the license plates. In parking lots and on roads throughout Big Sky, droves of cars registered to states around the country indicate an unusually usual pattern for the destination town’s summer season: tourism.

After a vertical dive in business following the COVID-19 related closure of Big Sky Resort in March, locals battened down the hatches and weathered booking cancelations, temporary business shutdowns and ghostly quiet streets. In an attempt to best manage potentially sparse resort tax funds, the Big Sky Resort Area District examined the worst potential outcomes for the community’s livelihood—tourism—through scenario planning. The fear was that there would be no tourism this summer and no substantial collections.

Now it’s July and that fear is fading as streets, stores and trails fill up once again, in the same manner as summers past. But with the pandemic’s especially aggressive resurgence in resort areas, Big Sky community members are thinking critically about how to strike the precarious balance between commerce and public health.

“We were anticipating July to be a little slower just due to the circumstances but it seems like people are just flocking to resort communities,” said Josh Treasure, general manager of Roxy’s Market in Big Sky.

Since Gov. Steve Bullock lifted Montana’s 14-day quarantine for out-of-state travelers on June 1, local business owners and managers have observed a surprising replication of past summer season trends. It’s busy in Big Sky.

Visit Big Sky, the area’s nonprofit destination marketing organization, uses a data collection program called DestiMetrics that compiles a retail report using reservations for 60 days out from eight lodging partners to compare to the past year to help inform partners on operational needs. Participating partners include Big Sky Vacation Rentals; Bucks T-4; Natural Retreats; Lone Mountain Ranch; Rainbow Ranch; Stay Montana; The Lodge at Big Sky and The Wilson Hotel.

As of June 15, collective bookings from the report forecast July occupancy to range from 32-57 percent. The comparable forecast from 2019 projected occupancy to range from 52-77 percent with actual bookings last July ranging from about 64-90 percent. While predictions would have suggested just weeks ago that Big Sky would see less traffic this summer, real-time reports say otherwise.

“We’re pacing higher this year than we were last year, which is very shocking,” said Mandy Hotovy, general manager of The Wilson Hotel in Town Center. While 2019 marked the beginning of the Marriott property’s first stub year, Hotovy said of the 3,999 rooms that can be sold across July, 90 percent will be filled, whereas last year The Wilson finished the month at around 81 percent occupancy.

Hotovy said that rooms started filling again around mid-June, in correlation, she believes, with Bullock’s revoking of travel restrictions, other states’ similar leniency and Yellowstone National Park opening its gates.

A significant amount of The Wilson’s summer business is due to families staying one to two nights before or after visiting Yellowstone, according to Hotovy. Yellowstone Public Affairs recently reported that June visitation to the park was down, but traffic picked up substantially toward the end of the month, with visitation in the last 10 days of the month ranging from 90-116 percent of 2019 figures. 

“With everything going on and of course with the pandemic, I don’t know if anyone around here really knew what to expect … because it would change week over week,” she said. Following the closure of the resort, Hotovy said that The Wilson experienced the same plummet in bookings as was ubiquitous across town. “We would have a massive amount of bookings and then all of a sudden a good chunk of cancelations.”

Adam Farr, owner of Ascend Properties in Big Sky, observed a similar trend in his property management business. “We’ve seen a significant uptick and interest in renting in Big Sky, really over the last four weeks or so,” Farr said, dating the rental spike to mid-June.

Ascend manages 145 properties in total, including second homes, vacation rentals and long-term rentals. According to Farr, properties are near full across the board, with 100 percent of second homeowners in town, approximately 90 percent of vacation rentals occupied, and no available long-term rentals.

Farr added that people aren’t just in Big Sky to vacation—many are looking to move here for the long haul. He fields multiple calls daily from people looking to move into a long-term rental.

“We’ve seen significant interest in the past, but when you have three to six people reaching out every single day, that’s pretty significant demand,” he said.

Hotovy and Farr both identified specific areas where much of the traffic is flowing in from—Salt Lake City, Seattle, Minnesota as well as Michigan, Chicago, Florida and California. And then there are road trippers from the East Coast—but, Hotovy said, at this point people are coming in from everywhere. Another trend they observed: last-minute bookings.

Farr said historically, properties are reserved two to eight months ahead of time. Now, most of Ascend’s bookings are three to six weeks in advance, a trend he attributes to uncertaintyfrom the pandemic. The Wilson has also observed numerous short-notice reservations, Hotovy said. At Big Sky Resort, General Manager Troy Nedved noted that booking windows for lodging have been shorter than usual as guests aim to keep their travel plans flexible.

While the resort was unable to share specific occupancy statistics due to confidentiality agreements with investors, Nedved did say he’s been surprised by the visitor turnout.

“With many guests road-tripping domestically and seeking activities that are inherently socially distanced, golf, biking and Basecamp activities have seen stronger demand than initially expected,” Nedved wrote in a statement to EBS.

Treasure is also taken aback by the level of business after anticipating a slow summer. Based on transactions, Treasure said that in the first two weeks of July, Roxy’s customer count was up 300-400 people per day compared to early July of last year.  He said that with the exception of a local rush in the mornings, most customers appear to be tourists.

“We’re happy to have the business and obviously it’s good from the business aspect, we just hope that they’re healthy and wearing masks and being considerate of everybody,” Treasure said. While he said he would never turn away business, Treasure pointed out that Roxy’s has taken precautionary measures to protect customers and staff by recently mandating face coverings for all staff and shoppers.

For those entering the store without a face covering, Treasure said they are directed to complimentary masks at the front of the store provided through the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce’s initiative to provide masks to local businesses that suggest or mandate their use. Treasure said that this mandate rarely causes issues and most people are compliant.

In spite of local efforts, however, resort communities have joined the ranks of the country’s most populous regions in spikes in viral transmission. In early July, The New York Times podcast “The Daily” reported that initial virus data from March showed that next to urban centers like New York and Seattle, resort counties across the U.S. were also being recognized as viral transmission hotspots.

More recently, The Times data shows that, following only the South, the West is seeing one of the top resurgence spikes of COVID-19 in the country.

Since the state reopened on April 26, Montana daily case counts, based on a seven-day average, were up 4,640 percent, according to Times data as of midnight on July 14, the most recent data available before EBS press time. And Montana has now seen the largest resurgence since opening by percent increase in the country. However, the state also ranks in the top five for available testing, having increased daily test counts, also by a seven-day average, by 703 percent.

Big Sky, while not yet topping any charts, may be no exception.

“We have a good number of cases in Big Sky, and whenever you have a large number of people in a place where we’ve seen significant disease transmission, that’s a concern,” said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley. “Inviting thousands of people into our community during a pandemic does bring with it risk, and we have to understand that and accept that.”

Chaz Boutsikaris, owner of the Brothel Bikes shop, which doubles as a bar, is no stranger to this risk. In late June, one of his bartenders contracted COVID-19 after being in contact with out-of-state visitors.

“It’s been really frustrating,” Boutsikaris said. “We’ve taken all of the precautions, and then one of my employees got sick outside of work.” According to the bar owner, he spent around $500 on sneeze guards, followed all health department guidelines, and even postponed the establishment’s opening a month beyond when he was allowed.

Immediately after learning of his employee’s diagnosis, Boutsikaris closed his bar for 2 weeks. In reflection of this experience, he said he would have rather waited longer to reopen and lost revenue than to have everything reopen when it did and enter a period of unknown risk.

“As a business owner, this is my life,” he said. “I built it from nothing. I have to make this business work. It’s in my best interest to make customers feel safe and employees feel safe.”

While Health Officer Kelley is not shy in expressing concern for the bustling community of Big Sky and its companion resort town, West Yellowstone, he said there are ways to balance the risk.

“It’s so important that everyone realizes that government can only do so much, but at the end of this, it’s going to come down to personal responsibility,” Kelley said, later confirming that “personal responsibility” extends to business owners. “If people will take personal responsibility and limit the number of interactions they have with other people, that will help us slow down this pandemic.”

Kelley listed social distancing, wearing face coverings and frequent hand washing as practices that everyone should adopt to prevent themselves and others from getting sick, even while on vacation. While the health department currently is not able to deduce how many Gallatin County cases were contracted from out-of-state visitors, Kelley did say that local cases are spread across everyone, from visitors to residents.

Business owners in Big Sky are prepared to make changes, but the interest in keeping businesses open remains strong. On Explore Big Sky’s recent Virtual Town Hall meeting, Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney said “We cannot have a healthy economy if we don’t have healthy citizens.” But in Big Sky, not achieving these things simultaneously could come at a cost and threaten businesses.

“I think there is this understanding that if there is a significant surge in Big Sky than we are going to have to take a few steps back and just be prepared to do that,” Farr said. “But in the meantime, we have to just keep pushing forward, [moving] back to normal, and keep an eye on the number of active cases in the area.”

Hotovy echoed this sentiment, noting that for a seasonal economy such as Big Sky, this is the time to generate revenue and keep businesses viable for the future, especially when much is still unknown about the winter season. Farr said that visitors are still hesitant to book for the upcoming winter, given the fluid nature of the virus and travel regulation.

For now, visitors continue to arrive and businesses are buttoning up limited contact and sanitizing services with the best hopes of staying healthy and staying open. According to Montana Department of Transportation data gathered near the sewer ponds off of Montana Highway 64, two-way traffic counts from July 1-12 are down just 8 percent from last year, a difference of only about 960 cars per day.

Layered over the growing concern of a viral resurgence, business in Big Sky marches forward in cautious step. “We do have to start moving back to normal for this town to survive,” Farr said.

As for what’s next, Gallatin Health Officer Matt Kelley says the county is keeping options open in order to maintain public health and keep the economy running. “We’re doing our best to prevent the situation where businesses have to close or people have to stay home in order to limit transmission,” Kelley said. But he’s keeping options open. “Everything is still on the table,” he said.

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