After the coronavirus pandemic laid waste to the ski industry, forcing operators to shut down lifts, Colorado outfitters along one of the world’s premier whitewater rafting destinations hope they’re not the next victims.

The worst-case scenario is indeed dire.

“Like we’re not going to have a season?” asked Bob Hamel, executive director of Arkansas River Outfitters Association. “I don’t think we want to go there yet, that’s for sure.”

Bill Dvorak, a longtime guide and operator in Salida, is bracing himself for the worst impact since 2002, when historic drought gripped the state.

“I’m almost thinking it’ll happen,” he said, “that unless we don’t get a handle on this soon, we’ll just not have a season at all.”

Dvorak said he’s “tightening the belt,” holding off on expenditures such as new boats and shuttles.

“The big thing is liability and insurance and vehicle insurance,” he said. “There’s a bunch of up-front costs and then of course guides are beginning to worry about there being jobs or not. So yeah, it’s a very complicated world at this point.”

Others in the industry are expressing optimism, including Mike Kissack, owner of Buena Vista-based American Adventure Expeditions. One benefit is time, he said — rafts typically drop in early May, with Memorial Day weekend marking the start of peak season.

“We’ve been through drought and we’ve been through economic downturns and we’ve been through forest fires,” Kissack said. “Never a pandemic before, but we’ve been through a number of challenges, and we’ve always made it out just fine.”

He anticipated increased efforts to sanitize and follow public health official guidance on social distancing in rafts and on shuttling busses — nothing the industry couldn’t handle, Hamel said. As Americans enter a second month of quarantine, “there’s going to be a lot of pent-up energy,” he said.

“That’s our biggest thought. After we’ve been isolated, I think it’s something we’ll want to do together with friends and family. I think it’ll be a pretty big surge in that direction.”

While it remains difficult to predict the virus’ forecast, Hamel liked what he saw in terms of runoff. His models have recently showed above-average snowpack in places benefiting the Arkansas River’s flow.

“We can deal with high water or low water but, well, coronavirus is not in the playbook,” Hamel said. “So, yeah, it’s a wait-and-see situation.”

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