Reservations for day use, a stricter limit on ski area capacity and loading fewer people onto chairlifts are ways in which the ski industry is adapting to operations amid the new normal wrought by COVID-19.
Best practices for social distancing implemented at resorts this spring and summer could become standards in the future, say some industry analysts. Others believe it’s too soon to determine if short-term practices are here for a permanent run.
Aspen Skiing Co. is closely watching what other resorts are doing both in the U.S. and abroad — including at Ikon Pass- and Mountain Collective-connected resorts in New Zealand — to respond to the pandemic, SkiCo spokesman Jeff Hanle said Tuesday.
Two ski areas in Oregon, Timberline Lodge & Ski Area and Mt. Bachelor, reopened on May 15 as the state allowed the first of a phased reopening for recreation facilities through an executive order by Gov. Kate Brown called “Safe and Strong Oregon.”
Colorado’s closure order for the pandemic has been extended through Sunday, according to the umbrella marketing association Colorado Ski Country USA. Gov. Jared Polis’s original order, effective March 15, shuttered the state’s ski areas, including SkiCo’s four: Aspen, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass.
On Tuesday, Polis press secretary Conor Cahill said the governor’s office and others have been reaching out to community leaders for specific guidance on industries, including recreation. Cahill said a response may be expected later this month.
“With the move toward ‘Safer At Home,’ the state is now actively watching/evaluating the spread of COVID-19 to ensure that continued reopenings are consistent with the latest public health trends and needs,” Cahill wrote Tuesday in an email.
“While we hope to provide businesses and industries with as much clarity as quickly as we can, and industries can currently work with local governments through the variance process, we hope to have a more clear idea near the end of this month, but at this point we need to ensure those public health needs continue to trend in the right direction, and will continue to need to wait on that data and analysis,” Cahill said.
The analysis will determine whether A-Basin in Summit County can become the only area in Colorado to reopen this year. A-Basin’s communications manager Katherine Fuller could not be reached for comment. But a story on Ski Area Management magazine’s website noted, “A-Basin has had snowcat operators pushing snow to manage run-off and keep the surface viable in anticipation of reopening.”
The reopening in the past week of Timberline Lodge & Ski Area and Mt. Bachelor offer a glimpse of ski area operations during the coronavirus.
Timberline was able to start running its lifts last Friday. “We are in typical spring mode on Mt. Hood,” Burton said.
Mt. Hood’s elevation of 11,235 feet allows for what is often the longest lift-served ski season in North America. June ushers in the usually busy summer season for race camps; it’s a goal every year to keep operating until Labor Day, if possible.
John Burton, director of marketing and public relations for Timberline, said two lifts, Magic Mile and Stormin’ Norman, run daily from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Adult tickets are $75. For summer skiing starting next month, the Palmer lift will get fired up.
At its base, the Timberline Lodge, listed as a National Historic Landmark and normally a huge draw, is only open to hotel guests and is scaled back to a maximum of 20 rooms per night that can be rented. Mt. Hood National Forest’s developed recreation sites remain closed.
On the hill, the ski area is limited to a daily allotment of lift tickets that are distributed through an online reservation system and can’t be booked more than 24 hours in advance, Burton said.
A physical checkpoint on Timberline Road asks skiers and riders to present their reservation before proceeding to the lifts. In the lift line, face coverings are required for all. Burton said the restrictions are for shared guest and employee safety.
“It’s two-way interaction. We are all in this together,” Burton said as he stressed of the new protocols for safety and social distancing.
Mt. Bachelor has limited-access for its existing 2019-20 passholders until May 25, according to its website. After that, the area opens for uphill travel.
Southern California’s Mt. Baldy, which closed in late March to help flatten the coronavirus curve, reopened April 22 for a few weeks until the natural snow ran out.
A spokesperson for the area that operates in the Angeles National Forest could not be reached via phone or email. Mt. Baldy does have a COVID-19 Social Distancing Operations Plan on its website that the resort asks guests to review before heading up the mountain.
An April story in the Los Angeles Times said during its reopening that Mt. Baldy would operate at less than 10% of occupancy. Reservations also would be standard.
“Lift tickets include a reservation time, and visitors will not be checked in until their designated slot. Mt. Baldy will check in a maximum of four people at 10-minute intervals,” according to the story by Luke Money.
Masks or face coverings consistent with the San Bernardino County health order were mandated and vehicles had to be parked “at least 20 feet apart,” the story reported.
During these new and unusual times, one of the ways ski areas are doing business is requiring daily reservations.
“Reservations are one way to control the volume of people at the ski area in order to comply with social distancing and mass gathering guidelines,” said Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of marketing and communications for the National Ski Areas Association.
“It is possible that restaurants may implement the same requirements, but it will depend on the local ordinances and other operational factors,” she added.
Timberline’s Burton said of lift ticket reservations,“It’s going to force a new way of thinking. That’s the reality of today” and part of the reopening plan the resort has submitted to Oregon’s governor.
“I believe it’s going to be tough for awhile,” Burton said, adding, “People need to get a handle on what their carrying capacities are” at resorts.
SkiCo’s Hanle said there has been no internal discussion about the need to implement strict capacity limits on the slopes of Aspen and Snowmass in the future.
Asked if reservations may become part of ski resort life, he said it’s too early to speculate.
“We will continue to observe, share and stay nimble as we move toward next winter,” Hanle said.
Last week, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority announced during its board of directors meeting that the popular Maroon Bells bus would use a reservations system this year for the first time ever. A limit of 15 passengers per bus and four buses per hour will be instituted on the route, which aims to begin by June 15.
Hanle noted that SkiCo has been in regular contact with industry trade groups and personal contacts. “We will continue to share best practices and ideas and work together on plans and solutions,” he said.
Riding with friends
While the trend for the past generation is higher capacity lifts — in Aspen that’s seen in an eight-person gondola and Snowmass’ Village Express, which is dubbed the “six-pack” — it’s unlikely those will be filled to capacity in at least the near future.
Burton said guests are left to decide who they ride with on the two quad chairs, reasoning that if they are related or acquainted the parties likely share the same antibodies. Mt. Baldy last month recommended people ride solo on their double chairs.
According to NSAA’s Saia Isaac, “In the short term, you may see ski areas limiting the number of guests per chair or only permitting those who live or traveled together to load the same chair.”
Will lift manufacturers take notice of new social distancing regulations by building lower capacity lifts? A spokesperson for Leitner-Poma lifts, whose U.S. offices are based in Grand Junction, could not be reached for comment.
Saia Isaac said, “We have not heard any discussions about this. Investment in a new lift costs millions of dollars and normally is part of a multi-year plan that takes many factors into consideration.”
SkiCo’s Hanle said while he didn’t know whether social distancing will herald in demand that manufacturers build lower capacity lifts, he agreed with Saia Isaac that lift decisions aren’t made lightly.
“Lifts are major investments and have long lifespans, so these types of decisions will be made with the long term in mind,” Hanle said.
In the near term, Hanle said Aspen Skiing Co. awaits direction from local authorities before determining its specific summer on-mountain plans.
“We are still working on our plans and awaiting guidance from county and state officials before we can share more specific operational plans,” Hanle said.
Colorado Ski Country USA updates of uphilling policies of its member resorts may be found at coloradoski.com/covid-19.
Skiing from sea to sea
In Europe, ski resorts are reopening as well. The following is an update, effective Tuesday, on ski resort operations worldwide:
• After reopening on May 14, and closing for the mid-week, Kanin ski resort, the highest in Slovenia (2,293 meters) and known for its “huge quantity of natural snow and most amazing views,” according to its website, continues lift-served operations Friday through Sunday.
• Riksgransen, Sweden, believed to have been the only area in the world to continuously operate during the global pandemic, is scheduled to keep running its lifts through Sunday.
• Gassan summer ski area in Japan plans a June 1 opening.
• In Austria, the Hintertux and Kitzsteinhorn glaciers have scheduled May 29 for when snowsports may resume. For Molltal glacier, that opening is now June 6.
• Two areas in New Zealand will open soon to people within its borders. Mt. Hutt is scheduled to open June 12, one week later than originally scheduled. Coronet Peak is targeting June 26. (Both are part of the Ikon Pass collective). New Zealand is operating under Level 2 lockdown restrictions, which represent a loosening that has allowed some small businesses to reopen, though the country’s borders remain closed. Ski areas in that country have had to agree to guidelines for operations including “including managing physical distancing, ensuring contact tracing and increased cleaning and sanitation requirements,” according to an article posted on snow-forecast.com.
Said Hanle: “We are excited that the Southern Hemisphere resorts are moving forward with plans to open and we should all be able to learn from each other.”