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What to Expect at US Ski Resorts This Winter Amid COVID-19

By Katherine Donnelly on

To put it lightly, things are going to be a little different at ski resorts this winter. And rightfully so.

With COVID-19 still very much a threat to the health and lives of many, not just in the US but across the globe, ski resorts have been poised with an interesting problem to solve: how to keep the mountain open while maintaining safe practices and operations for both guests and employees. Not only does this apply to the lifts and trails being used by patrons, but it extends through every facet of a ski resort operation; this includes, but is not limited to:

  • Parking and unloading
  • Public transit to and from mountain
  • Lift tickets, season pass sales, and black-out dates
  • Booting up and getting ready for the day, locker rooms
  • Ski and snowboarding lessons, schools, teams, and originations on hill
  • Lift lines and loading
  • On-hill etiquette between skiers/riders
  • Resort amenities, including food and beverage services, bathrooms, gift shop, rentals, on-hill lodges, etc.
  • Hotels and lodging within resort complex
  • Employee operations and logistics; offices
  • Overall cleanliness and sanitation across the mountain

Before we dive in to the bulk of these facets though, I think it's important to talk about what to expect even before packing up the car the morning of and starting your trip to the hill. 

What to expect: before the day of

Reservations needed: If you have plans of going skiing and snowboarding in-bounds this season, then I do hope you have already been doing your own research into how your resort is handling COVID-19. In an effort to keep to capacity and have the ability to maintain safe distance on and off the hill, many resorts have added limits to the amount of ticket and pass sales. And with resorts beginning to open up throughout the country, some have already maxed out in season pass sales for the time being - and day ticket sales are in high demand. If you've ever tried to get a permit for camping in the Enchantments or rafting the Grand Canyon, then expect something similar for some of those uber-popular destinations. 

The name of the game this year is advanced preparation. Don't be surprised if you are required to reserve a lift ticket, private ski lesson, or even a parking spot well in advance of your actual ski trip date. 

Every resort will be handling this in their own way, and the impacts from COVID-19 will look very different between locations; places like Aspen and Whistler will look very different from smaller resorts like Mad River Glen in Vermont or Washington's Mission Ridge. It's essential that you begin your research now, if you haven't already, so that you know what to expect at each unique destination and can plan ahead. Otherwise, you may end up having to call it quits and wait until next season...and no one wants that. 

Transit + parking: as I began to touch on above, transit to and from the mountain as well as parking logistics will also be different this year for many. For example, Mt. Bachelor in Oregon has free parking reservations available online for their entire season. In order to enjoy a day up at Bachelor, not only will you need to have a pass or ticket for the day but you will need to reserve a parking spot. Many other resorts are following a similar suit, so I highly encourage everyone to check on the parking and transit situations in their neck of the woods and make sure that you have everything locked in before leaving home. It would really suck to pay for a ticket only to arrive to the mountain and have nowhere to park...

What to expect: the day of

Now it should be said that as skiers and snowboarders, we are lucky enough to love an activity that takes place outside. This in itself helps to mitigate a large amount of risk in transmitting and passing along the novel coronavirus. But it doesn't mean that we're in the clear, as even recreating outside these days should be handled with care. 

Face coverings: while face coverings aren't a new item for those of us who have long loved the snow, this year they hold a whole new purpose past just keeping our cheeks and nose safe from the cold. And studies have shown promising results around the efficacy of face masks, when worn correctly and worn in tandem with socially distant behavior. 

Maintain social distance: I don't think we need to dig too deep into this, since at this point I think we're all pretty well practiced as keeping six feet away from each other. But I do want to reiterate that, even when wearing a face covering (and all of your layers for the slopes), it is very important to keep up with the social distancing. This of course does not apply to anyone from your household, but as soon as you open your car door in the parking lot it's time to keep at least a ski's length between you and those around you.

Yes, this does apply to those friends you haven't seen since last winter. I know you want to hug them, or fist bump them, or run up to them and high five, but let's keep that close contact to a minimum. 

Updated amenities and protocols for indoor spaces: a ski resort has typically offered a large range of amenities to its patrons. depending on the size and scale of a resort, it could offer anything from a quaint base lodge with a pub, tables, and bathrooms all the way to a large, luxurious village full of shops, cuisine, bars, nightlife, and lodging. Regardless of what your home resort looks like, it's safe to say things will be a bit different this season. 

Many resorts have spent the summer making updates to both their indoor layouts and their policies around these new spaces. Bathrooms being one of the more essential amenities, it has become common practice for resorts to update their bathroom layouts to accommodate socially distant lines and one-way entrance/exits. 

As for food and beverages, this is something that many resorts have taken their own unique approaches to this. I would suggest checking in with your resort to see what their policies are before heading out, and pack accordingly. Many resorts are closing their indoor spaces, with exception to the bathrooms, and shifting their extended offerings to the outdoors.

Food carts and fire pits will be a regular site near the resort bases this season, as more and more people are seeking food options that don't require heading inside. Packing your own picnic and calling your vehicle the base lodge is also going to gain popularity with patrons, as this will be the safest bet to keeping risk low. We just recommend packing some extra layers, a few extra beverages, and maybe bringing a stove or grill along - both for cooking up those burgers and for some well-deserved heat on the colder days.

Ski Well, Be Well

To help keep things consistent and aid in communication across the country, the National Ski Area Association (NSAA) has pulled together "Ski Well, Be Well". 

"An advisory group of ski industry leaders developed the Ski Well, Be Well operational best practices based on scientific guidelines from experts. These practices can be adapted to each ski area's unique operation, and can be scaled according to the appropriate local COVID-19 response." 

Ski Well, Be Well offers a good reminder for all of us on the main changes you can expect when recreating on the slopes this year. Of course, as mentioned before, different resorts will have different levels of policy changes based on their size, scale, offerings, and capacity levels. See the full 10-page Ski Well, Be Well document here.


Stay aware of state and national mandates: things may change!

It is crucial to also point out that ski resorts will be required to adhere to their state and national mandates. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, both resorts and patrons will need to stay keen to local and national developments - and with cases on the rise throughout the US right now, we could very well be looking at potential lockdowns and stay-at-home orders in the future. Fingers crossed that we can keep our mountains open for as long as possible, as I think we are all in need of some time in nature, but please keep an eye and an ear to the news in case any new mandates are passed down. 

So, what's your local mountain policy?

In all, this article touches upon some of the more important changes for winter 2020/21 but it is in no way comprehensive. Believe me, no one would want to read that. Instead, let this article encourage you prepare more than ever.

Things are going to look and feel different this season, and I highly suggest that you head over to your resort's website to begin getting familiar with their policy changes so that when it does come time to head up to the mountains you are 100% ready and can spend the day enjoying the snow instead of stressing the small stuff. 

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