Don’t expect a regular ski and snowboarding season this year. We spoke to experts on how to plan for a day on the slopes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As another wave of COVID-19 outbreaks hits the United States, many people might be feeling some uncertainty about whether or not to take a snowy trip to the mountains this winter. And just like everything else with the pandemic, taking a ski vacation this year will require more planning than usual.
The foremost question to tackle is whether you should go skiing or snowboarding at all. Unless a dramatic change in our pandemic status takes place between now and the end of the ski season, the answer to this is a personal one. Every ski resort and mountain destination will be implementing enhanced health and safety protocols that will naturally make the ski experience very different this year. It’s up to you to decide whether you feel comfortable with what that will require of you. Because it’s not just the resorts, hotels, restaurants, or rental companies that will have to adjust—the general public must, too.
“Generally speaking, the risk is low because [skiing is] a very ‘individual’ sport, but it’s important to consider how popular and in-demand skiing and snowboarding will be after being closed for such a long time,” says Jessica Malaty Rivera, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Science Communication Lead at The COVID Tracking Project. She adds that whether anyone should go skiing or not depends on many factors, “most importantly on what the resorts are doing to reduce risks.”
This is really where consumers are going to need to be more vigilant about educating themselves. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to how resorts (both big and small) are preparing for this unique ski season. Yes, most are going to be limiting the number of people who will be on the mountain at any given time, but the actual capacity restriction will likely be decided by each individual state government. And these restrictions could change week-to-week as pandemic data changes. So being prepared and aware of what’s going on where you want to ski and what that might mean will be critical. For instance, will you have to quarantine upon arrival if you want to ski out-of-state? That’s an important piece of intel to be sure of before you book any flights or accommodations.
“This is definitely the season of ‘know before you go,’” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association. She says that given how quickly things have been changing because of the pandemic, on top of heightened health and cleanliness procedures, ski destinations will be constantly updating their communication channels to keep the public informed, whether that’s through social media, their official websites, or email. But, Isaac adds, visitors need to pull their weight, too. “Read your emails, check the ski area site, call ahead for info, and obey all posted signage,” she says. “We all need to be a little flexible and a lot empathetic to get through this pandemic and keep our ski season going.”
If you do decide to move forward with your mountain holiday, you will want to purchase lift tickets online in advance. The ski world’s two most prominent “chains,” Vail Resorts (which manages the likes of Breckenridge in Colorado and Stowe in Vermont) and Alterra (they have Deer Valley in Utah and Big Bear in Southern California) will not be selling day tickets from their on-site kiosks this season. In fact, both companies are prioritizing lift access to season pass holders, who would still need to reserve their dates ahead of their visit. They are setting aside some day passes for non-holders but in limited quantities. Even if you’re not skiing at a Vail or Alterra resort, and whether you’re paying for daily lift tickets or you’ve already committed to a pass, you need to book ahead due to pandemic-specific capacity restrictions.
Once at the resort, expect to see familiar Covid-19 regulations: social distancing, wearing masks, washing your hands regularly, and going cashless with purchases. You should know these drills by now, and as Isaac says, “since ski gear already covers much of your face, wearing a mask will feel more ‘normal,’ too.” So no excuses there.
But of course there will be other rules in place that are new. For instance, most resorts will be limiting use of lifts so that only one party at a time may be on a chair or gondola. There will be fewer opportunities to gather indoors—not just with restaurants on the mountains (expect grab-and-go options when replenishing in between runs), but also with where you might be picking up gear rentals or meeting an instructor for lessons. Shops are unlikely to welcome customers inside, and ski schools are lowering the number of students per lesson to allow for better social distancing. And according to Chris Linsmayer of Colorado Ski Country USA, a trade association that represents 22 of the state’s winter resorts, rentals and lessons are arrangements you would need to make ahead of your visit, just like lift tickets.
“I think there will be some changes [with rentals],” Linsamyer adds. “If in the past you’ve just shown up to rent everything—from the entire outfit to all the equipment—you will want to check that that’s still possible.” He says that while nothing has been specifically decided with any of the destinations he works with, he has heard of some places considering limiting what will be available this year. So there’s a chance you might not be able to borrow goggles. And while rental companies are disinfecting boots and skis and helmets in between use, if you’re concerned about the risk involved with renting, come prepared with your own stuff. “If you’ve got your own gear, that’s definitely going to help,” Rivera adds. “The same goes for food (if allowed). The less time you need to spend around other people or indoors, the safer [it will be].”
There are other things you can do that could potentially lower your risk of running into too many people. Plan to ski on weekdays, when mountains are usually less busy. You could also drive to a smaller, closer resort. That would mean not having to fly or take other means of public transportation. Sadly, we don’t all live near the Rockies, but there are plenty of resorts all over the country. “Take the opportunity to check out local ski areas in your backyard or one that’s driving distance,” Isaac recommends. “Every ski area has its own unique personality and vibe, and exploring new, nearby places could be a really fun adventure.”
But even with the various adjustments we all have to make this season, the great thing is that the physical act of skiing or snowboarding or sledding down a mountain will still be the same. And in a year of so many changes (and very few thrills), your favorite outdoor activity may hold even more appeal. Just be prepared, and be flexible.