The upcoming ski season has been far from Dr. Emily Spivak’s radar this fall. As an infectious disease specialist at the University of Utah, she has been understandably preoccupied. She’s still not sure if she’s going to buy a season pass, like she usually does, to her home mountain: Alta. “This year’s ski season is kind of an unknown for us,” she said. “We’re going to have to see what happens.”
Spivak isn’t alone in that thinking. While ski resorts roll out operational plans for how they will reopen this winter during a global pandemic, skiers and snowboarders are trying to decide if they will ski and ride this winter, and if so, how will that look?
Specific resort policies may include reservation systems and limited capacities, as well as reduced on-mountain services, increased outdoor dining and touch-free transactions. Most resorts will require face coverings, promote social distancing in lines and lodges through revamped traffic flows and enforce spacing on chairlifts and gondolas so groups only ride with their designated parties.
Vail Resorts, operator of 34 ski areas and the Epic Pass, announced a reservation system to limit mountain capacity. Under the plan, all of Vail’s resorts will do away with walk-up ticket sales, requiring online reservations made in advance. Season pass holders can make limited bookings ahead of time and can snag unlimited reservations the week of. Regular lift tickets will go on sale at a later date in limited numbers. Quotas, which limit both pass-holder reservations and individual lift tickets, will be determined on a mountain by mountain basis and could fluctuate throughout the year.
“We think for the vast majority of days, we’ll be able to accommodate everyone,” said Johnna Muscente, Vail Resorts’ director of communications.
In Colorado, Copper Mountain will be tracking visitation numbers by requiring reservations for parking at the resort, which is included in the Ikon Pass. Alterra Mountain Company, operator of the Ikon Pass and 15 ski areas and heli-skiing operations, has announced that the company doesn’t plan to implement a full-scale reservation system at this time and intends to incorporate some level of flexibility for each mountain to determine its own plans.
Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, which reopened briefly at the end of last ski season with an online reservation system, announced that the mountain will only require reservations for day-ticket sales and Icon Pass holders who wish to come to the mountain. Season pass holders will not be restricted, but the number of season passes sold will be limited. Arapahoe Basin is also adding radio frequency identification (RFID) gates—which you slide through to scan your ticket to ride the lift—to limit physical contact.
At resorts like Brundage Mountain in Idaho, ski and ride school and dining will look different. “Our plan at this point is to offer private lessons, but no all-day kids club options, which would require extensive group time indoors,” said April Whitney, communications director at Brundage Mountain Resort, which is included in the Indy Pass. “We are not planning any large-scale events for this winter and there won’t be an après bar scene. We are completely reenvisioning the food and beverage experience based on state and local guidelines.” That will include more grab-and-go options and additional outdoor seating.
For Spivak, the Utah doctor, activities like ski school and dining give her the greatest concern; she’s less worried about the actual skiing and riding, citing the reduced risk of the virus spreading while being spaced apart outdoors. “Skiing itself is inherently socially distanced,” she says. “But dropping your kids off and having them meet inside in packed rooms with lots of other kids is obviously going to need some changing.”
According to the CDC, outdoor spaces present less risk than indoor spaces, “where it might be harder to keep people apart and there’s less ventilation.” In Colorado, the state’s Safer at Home guidance specifies that outdoor recreation participants wear masks during “check-in, staging, transportation to and from activity,” and maintain physical distance of at least 6 feet, among other measures. For operators of guided programs—like ski lessons—guidance includes greater mask wearing, conducting more staging and sign-in activities outdoors, encouraging reservations and limiting group sizes.
At Vail Resorts, ski and ride school instructors and participants will be asked to take an online health screening before classes. Class sizes will also be limited, and lessons will need to be purchased in advance. Brundage plans to offer only private lessons and will meet all participants on the snow, rather than indoors.
Some peace of mind for those like Spivak, who are weighing their options on whether or not to buy a pass for this winter? Many resorts have upgraded their insurance policies for pass buyers. Both the Epic and Ikon passes have increased refund policies in the event of another widespread shutdown, like we saw last March. Pass holders will also have options to tailor their insurance to a specific mountain or to set dates, customizing it whether they are a local skiing mostly at one specific mountain, out-of-towners only using their pass during a short window, or seasoned travelers exploring numerous mountains all season long—different plan types will impact the amount of a pass that can be refunded based on the time and location of closures.
The Indy Pass, which includes two days at more than 50 small, independent resorts around North America, is offering an automatic credit toward next year if skiers and riders use this year’s pass fewer than four days. Not all resorts have been able to add these reassurances, so make sure to check your local resort’s policies before purchasing a pass.
“This is definitely the season to do your research before heading to the hill,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, director of communications for the National Ski Areas Association. She recommends checking a mountain’s website and social media updates before buying your pass and heading to the hill each day. “For years, we’ve said, ‘Know Before You Go’ when talking about the backcountry, and that rule of thumb will be applicable for resort skiing this year, too.”