Those looking for a sign that Napa Valley life is edging closer to normal might do well to look up.
Three months after being grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic, hot air balloons are once again floating above the Valley.
Of course, just because the balloons are launching today doesn’t mean wine country has cleared the COVID-19 hurdle. With the recent re-closure of salons, indoor dining, fitness centers and worship services, we’re far from it.
“In my over 12 years at the helm at Napa Valley Balloons, there has never been a more challenging time,” wrote business owner Gabriel Gundling. The years 2008-2009 were “a cake walk in comparison; and those were difficult times as well.”
“We have had fires, a flood, and an earthquake in the recent years,” said Jared Kimball of Napa Valley Aloft Balloon Rides. “But nothing compares to our current disaster.”
“The travel industry has been decimated by COVID, but man-o-man, this is certainly the last thing I expected to be dealing with in 2020,” said Gundling. “It looks like it’s the new reality for a bit.”
“Everything is in constant change, and we’re just trying to adapt to it as quickly as possible,” he said.
Gundling said since his company reopened at the end of June, it has been filling the limited capacity it has with guests — mostly from the Bay Area.
“Seems like folks in the Bay Area still want to get out and do something fun outdoors while also supporting the local economy,” he said. “They start with the balloon ride in the morning and since that’s over so early, it leaves a lot of time for them to make a full day trip of it before heading home.”
Ballooning is a permitted outdoor activity, but guests still face the new set of COVID safety precautions the company has implemented, said Gundling.
For example, Napa Valley Balloons has cut its capacity in half, limiting basket compartments to just members of the same party and all the compartments are separated by vinyl windows.
“They look a bit funny, but they provide an extra layer of separation between the compartments and the guests,” he said.
Additionally, all crew and guests get a temperature scan, hand sanitizer is readily available and face masks are required at all times for both staff and guests. All equipment is sanitized between flights.
He even stopped serving his normal pre-flight coffee to further minimize possible contact points for transmission.
“It’s madness really when you stop and think about it, but it’s totally worth the trouble,” said Gundling.
On top of all of that, “It has also been challenging finding crew,” said Gundling. “There are a lot of people who would rather stay home than work right now and who can blame them?”
Kimball said customer demand at Napa Valley Aloft has been “encouraging” since reopening on June 13.
“There is a high level of interest for outdoor activities after a long shelter in place,” he wrote in an email. “Customers are definitely doing their due diligence when researching activities,” but seem to be satisfied when learning of the safety precautions and policies the company has established.
Those precautions include reducing the number of passengers in a balloon and offering private compartments for small groups and couples. Basically, he’s operating at 50% capacity, said Kimball.
For additional safety measures, Napa Valley Aloft installed vinyl transparent barriers between passenger compartments. And of course, masks are required.
According to Kimball, that hasn’t dampened the overall experience of floating above the Valley.
“If anything, the experience has improved for the passenger because of more space and privacy in their compartment,” said Kimball.
According to the business owner, besides the pilot occasionally answering a question and offering safety instructions, “ballooning doesn’t have a lot of interaction between parties, people typically keep to themselves in their private compartment, looking out towards the beautiful views of Napa Valley. People are generally there to take pictures and enjoy the views, not to converse or interact,” he said.
Kimball said that like Gundling, most of his current passengers are from the Bay Area.
“In a normal summer we see more international and out-of-state tourists. Mid-week large groups have all cancelled or postponed their trips.”
The good news for Kimball is that he hasn’t had to lay off employees. “However it’s not a sustainable business model long term at our pre-COVID price point,”
“Ultimately, we have had to increase our prices to weather the storm,” Kimball said.
Kimball said he remains optimistic for now. “We have received so much positive support from our local leaders and the community which gives me hope for the future.”
Gundling said since flights have resumed, people on the ground have told him how nice it was to see the balloons flying again.
“I’ve often heard people say they judge how good of a day it will by how many balloons they see flying, so maybe seeing us in the air is also a happy reminder of good times past and better days in the future,” he said.
From the archive: Construction begins on downtown Napa boat dock