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A Day at the Slopes, Pandemic Style

A Day at the Slopes, Pandemic Style

Published by Brion O'Connor

Skiers, like ski areas, are a determined lot. We'll find a way to get our turns, regardless of the weather, snow conditions, the cost, or other commitments. In the past, those four things have probably been the greatest obstacle to a session on the slopes. Today, though, we're dealing with a pandemic, and challenges we've never experienced before.

Initially, skiing, with its natural allure of being outside, would seem the perfect antidote for COVID-19, given expert opinions on the benefits of fresh air and sunshine in addition to proper social distancing. Unfortunately, that idyllic scene can turn sour when skiers and boarders gather in ticket lines, lift lines, and in the lodge, the very places where we enjoy skiing's legendary social element.

Essentially, the novel coronavirus is an entirely new ball game, forcing all of us to confront a "new normal." The virus doesn't recognize state lines or even national borders. As a result, we need to be vigilant to avoid putting ourselves, and others, at risk. Which means our "ski experience" is bound to feel considerably different this winter.

New Ski Experience

How different? That may well depend on which area you visit, and which state that area is situated in. Suffice to say, most ski areas, from local neighborhood hills to mammoth resorts, will have a new look.

"We know that we're going to be making adjustments to the way our ski areas operate this winter, and things will be different everywhere," said Jessyca Keeler, executive director for Ski NH. "The biggest challenge is really making sure that people understand what those changes are and that they are willing to adapt with us.

"For example, we'll need to limit the number of people in a base lodge at any given time and they won't be allowed to leave their boot bags and other personal possessions lying around," said Keeler. "This means people are going to have to adapt their behaviors in order for ski areas to be able to remain open. Another major challenge is ensuring that our staff remain safe and healthy. Our resorts cannot operate without them, so it's imperative that we have solid protocols in place to protect them as well."

Kris Blomback, general manager of Pats Peak in New Hampshire for the past 25 years, has seen it all. His greatest concern is the "funnel effect" when skiers gather at lifts and the lodge. This winter, he hopes to see skiers making more of an effort to keep themselves, and others, safe.

"This is an ever-changing process. The best thing you can do is 'mask up,' keep the distance, and wash your hands," said Blomback. "The effect of those three things will have a positive outcome as to what our ski season looks like."

Of course, skiers are likely already comfortable with masks, but they should anticipate ski area employees to be extra vigilant in making sure everyone is using proper face coverings, for everybody's safety. And that's just the start. Plan to purchase your tickets online, ahead of time, since many ski hills are not only capping ticket numbers, but also implementing contact-free transaction options.

Things will also look different in the parking lot, where areas are hoping to create more of a "tailgate" experience that you might expect at the stadium of your favorite NFL team. Plan on bringing extra blankets, extra coffee, and maybe a cooler with lunch and libations. You may also find Port-A-Potties and fire pits installed in parking areas.

Expect changes on the hill, and at the base of the hill, as well. Here's a short list of anticipated adjustments:

  • More signs throughout the ski area and resort reminding guests of the basic COVID-19 precautions, including wearing masks, proper social distancing, proper sneeze and cough "etiquette" (cover your nose and mouth), and the need for patience.
  • More outside seating at all lodges, complete with deck heaters and wind blocks to make the experience more comfortable.
  • New lodge layouts to enhance foot traffic, and less furniture to promote social distancing.
  • Take-out windows for cafeteria food.
  • New technology allows visitors to order food with their smartphones. New apps will also enable skiers to purchase tickets and receive the latest information (like snow reports) from ski areas.
  • Additional bathroom facilities at the base of the lifts to help avoid the lodge.
  • Ticketing kiosks for contact-free redemption.
  • Social distancing implemented at rental and ski school operations.
  • Vail CEO Rob Katz, in an open letter to season pass-holders and employees, made it clear that safety would be a major emphasis this winter. Katz promoted three main points that would be enforced at all Vail resorts:

    1. Face coverings will be required to access the mountains and all parts of resort operations, including lift lines, while loading, unloading, and riding in lifts and gondolas.
    2. To allow for physical distancing, Vail will manage access to the slopes through a reservation system and limiting  lift ticket sales. Most days, Vail officials expect to be able accommodate everyone who wants to visit.
    3. Vail is "re-imagining" the on-mountain experience – chairlifts and gondolas, dining and ski school – to help keep guests safe.

    Likewise, Rusty Gregory, CEO for the Alterra Mountain Company (which boasts 15 resorts, including Squaw Valley and Steamboat), said the company has been working to develop operating plans and protocols to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, focused on complying with the myriad local, county, and state regulations. (As of press time, many states were still limiting visits from out-of-staters, so it would be wise to check with each ski area if you plan to cross state lines.)

    In an interesting twist, the pandemic may actually spur season pass sales, as many resorts, like Alterra, plan to limit numbers of visitors, offering first dibs to season pass-holders.

    "This effort starts with controlling resort visitation levels to avoid overcrowding," said Gregory. "We are prioritizing access for season pass holders and will tightly regulate the number of daily lift tickets that will be available by advance purchase only."

    On the positive side of the ledger, ski areas are getting ready for a full season. And that bodes well for skiers. Because we need our turns. 

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