STAYCATION: Luxury at home when you’re stuck there in a pandemic

The lobby of the Gaylord of the Rockies, Oct. 5, 2020. Photo by KARA MASON/Sentinel Colorado

AURORA | While Aurora isn’t particularly known for tourism, before the pandemic the city would regularly fill with convention-goers, act as a host to youth sports tournaments and accommodate travelers looking for a meal on their way to or from Denver International Airport.

It was pretty clear early on in the pandemic the hospitality industry would be hit hard, and so Visit Aurora, which is tasked with promoting the city to outsiders, swiftly altered its strategy. Instead of luring people nearby to a theater production on East Colfax Ave. or enticing major organizations with conference amenities at Gaylord of the Rockies, Aurora’s tourism experts pitched a staycation to locals.

Randi Morritt, director of marketing at Visit Aurora, told the Sentinel in June hotel occupancy rates were at an all-time low, as was the case for most of the state and country, but there was some hope.

“People didn’t think of Aurora as a leisure destination, but people are starting to explore their own neighborhood and find things where they thought they had to go further away to experience,” she said.

That meant getting people to visit more local parks, seek out a restaurant they hadn’t tried yet or check-in for a night at the Gaylord, the million-square-foot (and now eerily quiet) hotel and convention center on the city’s eastern edge.

There’s something to be said for a change in scenery, but in a pandemic it’s complicated.

On a recent Monday evening, checking-in to the Gaylord was easy, parking was a breeze and the valet attendants seemed bored. Instead of being met with a line at the front desk, guests are met with a lonesome lobby and a sign pleading patrons to follow public health guidelines by wearing a mask.

As a journalist who’s talked to business owners decimated by the economic impact of  COVID-19 and people who’ve spent weeks in hospital beds because of the contagion, I easily became the kind of person who took the pandemic seriously.

I adopted a mask early on, have mostly worked from home, limited my in-person shopping and shamed myself for online shopping out of fear it would put others working in warehouses at risk. I’ve prioritized takeout at the restaurants I would hate to see close, and I almost always tell any grocery or restaurant worker I interact with to “stay safe out there.”

I’m constantly counting the people I’ve come into contact with and guesstimating what their social circles might be like. It’s become near-obsessive. Early on in the pandemic, I had a dream I unknowingly gave a close friend the virus simply by watching a movie with them in their apartment. I didn’t see them for months after that. Luckily, they’re kind and cautious and understood my fear. When we finally met up, it was because I was fresh off a negative COVID-19 test.

In August, as cases in Colorado seemed to be declining again, more of my friends started posting their weekend trips on Instagram. Some were traveling out of state, others were flocking to AirBnBs in mountains not too far away. I cringed, but they were fine. They wore masks. They didn’t catch the novel coronavirus that’s killed more than 210,000 Americans and infected millions.

So when the opportunity for a two-night stay at the Gaylord was presented to me this month, I pondered it. After all, it’s like the Gaylord invented social distancing. Situated between sprawling suburban neighborhoods and Denver International Airport, I’ve often dismissed the gigantic hotel as a staycation destination in the past because there isn’t much else out there.

Now, there’s a sense of comfort in that.

Still, for those of us who are masters of calculating risk checking into a hotel right now feels a little like checking into an anxiety rehab center. Would I use the pool? I decided against that. A facial or a massage at the spa I’ve been desperately craving? I decided against that, too, and then was relieved new pandemic hours didn’t align with my stay.

At the very least, I thought two nights would be a change of scenery, something that I’ve always found instantly boosts my creativity and productivity.

You could walk for perhaps miles around the Gaylord right now without seeing anybody except an occasional staff member. A coffee spot is closed. There aren’t people using the escalators in the convention center, but they still run.

It’s haunting, but in an oddly satisfying way, as the pandemic rages on. This week state leaders warn that if the current trend continues, Colorado hospitals may become overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

State leaders are asking people to be more cautious and vigilant about social distancing. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Get a test if you feel ill.

The massive Aurora hotel is still offering deals and packages, like it would any other time. Right now it’s a “Goblins & Giggles Getaway Weekend.” A few staycationers seemed to be taking advantage of the fall-themed activities during my stay.

Winter holiday activities are still planned, too.

While the hotel is clearly not operating like normal, it’s a little reminder of what normal is like and that it’s possible to catch a glimpse of it still while practicing social distancing and limiting the spread of the virus.

Throughout the pandemic during news conferences Gov. Jared Polis has continuously talked about balancing risk and sustaining some sense of normalcy. It’s become abundantly clear that people cannot, for a variety of valid reasons, just stay home, so the next best thing is acting as safely as possible.

“We can’t let this virus hold us back from living our lives, and that means being able to go to work, being able to go to school and being able to celebrate the opening of a museum,” Polis said in late July after attending an outdoor event in Colorado Springs. “Those things aren’t going to look as exactly as they did, because if they did, the virus would succeed in its goal of hospitalizations and death. We also can’t let it succeed in preventing us from living fulfilling lives, lives that allow us to have that human connection in a safe way, and that’s really what these health guidelines and recommendations are about.”

In an attempt to strike that balance Polis regularly mentions, it’s both really hard and really easy justifying a staycation right now. It’s the closest thing to an ordinary getaway while also being as safe as possible.

The risk is still evident, but as far as safety and sanity goes, a staycation feels like a small win in this drawn out hell year.