In theory, skiing and snowboarding are activities that should still be achievable and safe despite the ongoing threat of COVID-19.
Both are sports that — with a few notable exceptions — take place exclusively outdoors. Face coverings are standard apparel, and social distancing on the trail is, by definition, easily attainable.
Yet while the risks of coronavirus transmission appear low during the actual act of skiing, virtually every other part of a ski trip has organizers grappling with logistical questions.
How will lodges — so often packed with skiers — be managed in compliance with statewide protocols? Lift rides are also an aspect of the regular experience that pose problems.
An array of other challenges confront ski areas heading into the 2020-2021 season, even as uncertainty around state-level regulations (particularly reduced capacity stipulations) are still being decided across New England.
The most important thing to know before heading out this year will be to check the website of the ski area you want to visit well in advance, as specific COVID-19 policies can range depending on the mountain.
That said, here are a few general changes that skiers should be aware of:
Standard COVID-19 safety measures apply
Regularly practiced COVID-19 safety measures, such as wearing face coverings and maintaining social distancing, are expected when skiers aren’t on the mountain.
The National Ski Areas Association’s “Ski Well, Be Well” initiative provides a more in-depth look at many of the basic practices that resorts are adopting.
Additionally, skiers should make sure they comply with the specific guidelines for traveling to each state.
Reservations and online tickets will be a central theme
Booking lift tickets in advance will now become a requirement at many ski areas looking to limit face-to-face customer service while also managing expected capacity limits. Passes purchased online will mostly still be available for pickup at the ticket window.
The more conspicuous change will be the increased need to make a reservation in advance. In the past, a purchased ticket might be valid on a wide range of days. This season, many tickets will be attached to a specific date, which is another method resorts are using to manage crowds.
An example is Vail Resorts, which owns New England ski areas Attitash, Crotched Mountain, Mount Snow Mount Sunapee, Okemo, Stowe, and Wildcat, and has instituted a blanket reservation system for all skiers.
“This season,” wrote Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz in a letter to customers, “lift tickets will be sold with a reservation for a specific resort on a specific date.”
Season pass holders will also be called upon to reserve their spot in most cases, though they will be given either guaranteed access or first priority.
Anyone using the rental shop will likely also have to place a reservation in advance, and adhere to social distancing policies when picking up or dropping off equipment.
In either case, the days of simply showing up at a ski area on a whim are — for the moment — largely over. While some passes will be sold day-of, they will likely be heavily restricted due to reduced capacity requirements.
If you want to ski, you will most likely have to plan it at least a day in advance.
Lodges, bars, and the après ski scene will be restricted
Regardless of the ski area, the base lodge (and adjoining bars and restaurants) is a central hub of activity during a normal season. Obviously, that will not be the case this year.
In what will potentially be the most dramatic alteration for many skiers’ experience, base lodges will not be open for putting on ski boots and other gear at the start of a day. Virtually every ski area has announced a desire to have guests “boot up” in their cars.
“People have always been accustomed to coming into the lodge, and changing into their ski boots, and storing their bags,” noted Wachusett Mountain director of marketing Tom Meyers. “Those kinds of things will be very restricted this year. What we say is to use your vehicle as your base lodge. Change into your boots in your car.”
Many resorts have made efforts to increase outdoor facilities, including dining and bar options. As Meyers noted, Wachusett has leased several specially heated “Dragon Seats” to help cater to the outdoor environment.
Other mountains, normally hoping to cultivate business at lodge-based restaurants, are hoping skiers bring their own meals.
“Guests are encouraged to carry snacks with them to avoid needing to take breaks inside,” reads an update from Sunday River.
The bar scene, another staple of the traditional ski area ecosystem, will be almost entirely limited to guests who have a seat at a specific table.
“Our legendary après won’t look the same this year,” admitted a recent Killington update.
Social distancing will be maintained on lifts
Along with reduced capacity ticket sales, ski areas will also be limiting the crowds on lifts. Lift lines will be spaced out to prevent the traditionally large groups from forming in tight spaces.
On the lifts themselves, resorts will load chairlifts sparingly, often grouping those in the same party.
“Guests will be asked to ride the lift with members of the group they traveled with,” notes a Sugarloaf policy.
Some ski areas will allow people not in the same party on a chairlift together, but only if they sit on opposite ends and are also wearing a face covering.
One notable consequence of social distancing necessities is the 80-person aerial tramway at Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire has been effectively shut down for the short term.
“The Aerial Tramway is not expected to operate at least for the first half of the season and could extend beyond that,” Cannon Mountain stated in a COVID-19 policy update on its website.
An update on school programs and lessons
One of the major components of any ski area are large lesson programs that continue through the season.
While private lessons will still be offered by many resorts, numbers on the classes might be limited. Also, there might be a restriction on lessons for younger children (depending on the mountain), given the increased social distancing challenges.
Loon Mountain, as an example, says it is working to develop a “parent-child” private lesson option.
School programs also face difficult hurdles, since buses are critical. Many of the programs will likely be offered by ski areas, but students may have to find some other means of transportation.
“We absolutely are offering the program. It’s obviously all contingent on what that individual school is able to do,” Meyers said of Wachusett. “We’re anticipating that some schools will not be able to do it, and some will have restrictions on transportation.”
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