CANON CITY — “Tourism is one of our top three industries in Canon City. So very concerned,” said Canon City Mayor Ashley Smith. The new mayor never imagined dealing with a global pandemic when she took office this year. COVID-19 remains a health concern, but this small community also has to consider what shut-downs and stay at home orders mean to the economy in this area of Colorado where hundreds of thousands visit every year.
Attractions and activities like rafting on the Arkansas River, The Royal Gorge Bridge and Park, also the Royal Gorge Route Railroad, get the largest visitor numbers from May through September. “We have an extremely short window to make any money in the summertime,” said Royal Gorge Rafting and Zip Line Tours owner Ty Seufer. His business has the tradition of opening each year on the last Friday of April. Because of COVID-19 the tradition is on hiatus for 2020. There is also the unanswered question of when he can start rafting season. The plan for now, is opening May 15th.
The Royal Gorge Route Railroad is open year-round. Still, the majority of its more than 150-thousand yearly riders are counted during summer months. There have been no train trips through the Royal Gorge for four weeks now. “For us, trying to get open, it’s a big deal here,” said owner Mark Greksa.
The Royal Gorge Bridge, which is owned by Canon City, but run by an amusement company and injects two million dollars a year into the city’s budget. “We will gradually open, kind of like we gradually closed,” said spokeswoman Peggy Gair. Right now, the attraction is accepting applications for 150 or so summer jobs it offers. When the jobs start is not known.
All of these destinations have used the month of COVID-19 mandated closures to do extra maintenance and prep work for when restrictions ease. Given the go ahead, they are ready to open.
Mayor Smith points out the small number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the area. She says the COVID-19 health risk has to be taken seriously, but response in a small community versus a large city should not be treated the same. The number of COVID-19 cases in this area is less than 15. “If we can continue to see our number rate go down, then we have petitioned to be able to open up sooner,” said Smith. She has gone to Colorado Governor Jared Polis with the proposal.
Proactive measures like a self-certification program are also underway to show government leaders and visitors there are community wide prevention protocols in place. The measures include things like sanitation stations and appropriate use of masks. They are for the health and safety of everyone in the area while COVID-19 remains a threat
Some in the area think on-going or lingering COVID concerns could limit long distance travelers wanting to avoid air travel. They also believe many from Colorado will choose to stay closer to home this year. “We need to get out there and show people a good time,” said Seufer, “That’s what we do.” Operators of Canon City attractions are working to show it is a short drive to this part of Colorado, where plans are in place to limit risk of exposure to the virus. First, they have to get an okay for opening.