True Grit. How They Are Toughing Out COVID in the USA
ROLLIN' ROLLIN' ROLLIN' KEEP THOSE SKI LIFTS ROLLINGWith millions of Brits and Europeans having to forgo skiing this season, somehow skiers and snowboarders in the USA have carried on regardless of the pandemic. Coronavirus cases are still high as well as death tolls, and outbreaks have sporadically occurred this winter in ski towns.
So, how come North American skiing is still going strong? Last winter resorts closed summarily in mid-March when Vail Resorts began a domino effect of social responsibility. Now in their third month of operations for winter 2020-21, it looks like Americans will be skiing to their heart’s content for the entire season.
STYLE ALTITUDE'S North America Editor, Louise Hudson reveals how ski resorts have kept their ski lifts rolling this winter despite the pandemic.
Next week: A round-up of the Canadian ski resorts during the COVID crisis..
Main image: The traditional stampede of cowboys on skis at the Bud Light Downhill Rodeo, Steamboat.
In general, it’s pretty clear that US policy has favoured ‘wealth over health’ during the coronavirus crisis, with no national lockdowns, limited regional closures, minor mask-wearing mandates, and world-record infection and death rates. Herd immunity by exposure was the government’s first response to the crisis and now it appears to be vaccine versus virus.
With no international arrivals, resorts are seeing increased domestic visitation with an emphasis on storm chasing. The first weekend in February, huge queues after a big snowfall at Steamboat caused media uproar. Tell-tale YouTube footage and community outcry resulted in the resort issuing a tighter limit on numbers for the traditionally busy Feb 14 long weekend. Vail and Breckenridge, within easy driving distance from Denver, also attracted substantial crowds over the President’s Day holiday.
Ski resorts in North America have overcome considerable challenges courtesy of COVID this winter. Not only did they have to gear up for enhanced cleanliness, social distancing, mask wearing, dining limitations and low touch operations but they have also suffered staff shortages due to international travel bans. Add to this Trump’s ban on a variety of foreign worker visas and you can imagine the lack of lifties, food servers and cleaners.
So, what does a pandemic powder day look like in the US? Adrienne Isaac is Director of Marketing for the National Ski Areas Association and a keen skier. “This season, there’s a little more to navigate – it’s not as easy as waking up, checking the snow report, and powder chasing like in seasons past,” she says. “You have to plan your day in advance – that includes having a good ‘car lodge’ set up since some amenities are limited this year.”
Of course, mask wearing is relatively easy as face coverings are part of normal North American ski wear, especially November to February, typically the coldest months of the ski season. “And we’ve all had practice at distancing and buying online and following COVID-safe protocols,” adds Isaac.
The Great Outdoors
Results aren’t yet in for the NSAA’s seasonal analysis, but anecdotally Isaac can confirm an uptick in numbers. “People are wanting to ski and ride. And it’s not just core skiers – we’re also seeing people trying snowsports for the first time, which is really exciting,” she says. “I think one of the most inspiring things has been seeing our industry come together and find a way to ski responsibly, in a way that enriches our communities but doesn’t overwhelm our public health systems. It feels good that we as an industry are able to give people this recreation outlet.”
The summer saw an increased emphasis on outdoor recreation such as hiking and biking across the States and this al fresco attraction has continued into the winter. “Being active in the outdoors was a relatively low-risk way to do something outside of the house and improve mental and physical health,” says Isaac. “Skiing and riding – out in the open air, with masks and social distancing in place – can provide a recreational outlet with a low-risk of transmission. And after being cooped up and the general stress of the pandemic, people were looking for that outlet.”
Last summer the NSAA developed Ski Well, Be Well – a set of foundational operating best practices for ski areas. “We looked to experts at the CDC and WHO for guidance, and also gave ourselves room to be flexible as we learned more about COVID-19 and its transmission,” Isaac recalls. “We learned that transmission is most likely to happen indoors, when you are in close contact (ie. within six feet) with a person for 15 minutes or more. Skiing and riding are naturally distant activities in the open air, so we had confidence that by implementing other best practices like mask requirements and physical distancing measures such as spacing in ticket queues and lift lines, we could carry on with skiing with a relatively low risk of transmission.”
United State of American Resorts
Much of the success of US ski resorts in staying open has been down to teamwork. “We were fortunate that in the US ski industry leaders immediately came together after the March 2020 shutdown, put aside competition in favour of collaboration, and worked to design a united platform for operating during a pandemic in the hopes of reopening for the 2020-21 season - and staying open,” Isaac explains. “The science was on our side - meaning, in favour of outdoor recreation - and leaders were willing to pivot operations as needed to not just offer skiing and riding, but do so in a way that supported the overall health of our communities.”
Despite restrictions and protocols, skiing is giving Isaac and skiers all over the US a sense of normalcy and a healthy antidote to the anxiety of the pandemic.
Denuding skiing of the normal après accoutrements has brought wintersports back to brass tacks, according to Paul Marshall, Director of Communications for Ski Utah.
“It’s brought some of the soul back to the sport with minimalist offerings on mountain, just focusing on the skiing,” he observes. Parking lot tailgating has seen a resurgence and, although there have been some “ups and downs to this season”, he says some of the pandemic changes will have a positive lasting effect.
Creative solutions that might outlive the virus include parking reservations and enhanced outdoor dining alternatives. Negative factors this winter include reduced revenue from on-mountain dining and ski school reductions; traffic snarls while both carpooling and public transit are being discouraged; and front-line staff overburdened with reminding skiers about pandemic protocols.
Despite COVID obstacles this season and the resulting extra work load, getting out skiing regularly has been “a lifeline” for Marshall. “It has provided me the outdoor access, fresh mountain air, and return to nature that was much needed for both my mental and physical health. Professionally, it is a bit more complex, as we want to help our resorts garner revenue and stay open as they are an economic driver.”
A slow start to the Utah snow season kept crowds down over the Christmas holiday period but more recent dumps have led to rising numbers. “This will not be a record breaking season in terms of skier visits - but the predictions won't be as low as it might be assumed,” Marshall notes. There's been an increase in locals skiing this winter, with a change in patterns of visitation: “More skiers and riders are coming at different times of the day due to at-home work schedules and longer vacation stays.”
Although most après has been confined to parking lots or home bubbles, Marshall says hotels and restaurants are open and are seeing significant visitation. Confessing that he’s overly cautious, he notes that he hasn’t been out to eat for almost a year, gets regular COVID tests, and never leaves home without wearing a mask. “With that said, I find myself at ease on the mountain and generally I am not worried about catching COVID,” he says. “I do wear two masks (medical and then a buff) as they are required by the resorts and, if riding solo, I always opt to take the chairlift alone. Resorts have done an excellent job in managing those requests and making sure everyone is wearing a mask.”
So far he hasn’t received any reports of skiers or snowboarders catching the virus while skiing or riding.
Book It Danno
Possibly the most significant adaptation for Park City – and all Vail Resorts ski areas – is the new reservation system which requires visitors to plan ahead. “We implemented a reservation system in order to manage on-mountain access this season,” says Hannah Dixon, Communications Manager. “Our Epic Pass holders received priority access to book reservations in an exclusive early season booking window.”
On-mountain après has been curtailed, with bars closed and mountain restaurants managing capacity through the Time to Dine reservations platform. “While it certainly hasn’t been easy to operate our resorts during a pandemic, we are extremely pleased that we opened and have been able to stay open this season,” says Dixon. “We are very proud of our reservation system which has been running successfully, and with which we led the industry when we announced it well ahead of the season. It has helped us provide a safe experience for our guests and manage how many people are on our mountains on any given day. We are grateful we had this in place in advance so we didn’t have to change course mid-season.” She and other lucky Park City skiers are currently enjoying blissful weeks of regular snowfalls and powder days.
100 Days of Skiing
Already on day 55, Aspen’s David Wood is hoping to make his usual 100 days on the slopes.“If I do that it will be my eighth consecutive season of skiing 100 or more days,” says the retired bank executive who has a home in Snowmass Village. Author of “Sanctuaries in the Snow", he says that Pitkin County initiated an online COVID affidavit for Aspen visitors due to notching up the worst virus numbers in Colorado at one point.
“It has been suggested that a lot of people who wanted to come here to ski decided they didn't want to deal with the hassle of completing this affidavit and instead decided to go to places that did not have that requirement such as Steamboat, Vail, or Summit County,” he says. As a result, he says, there are no lift lines - or powder poaching - in Aspen.
Due to restrictions on inside dining, the resort has come up with some creative alternatives including temporary outdoor dining structures such as igloos outside the Lynn Britt Cabin. There are also igloos at Plato’s Restaurant in Aspen town, attracting private groups to indulge in heated outdoor dining on faux fur seating with scenic views of the ski areas. Aspen Meadows has ‘après to go’, delivering DJ curated ski playlists, mini shotskis, craft cocktails and charcuterie platters to suite doors.
Ski Until You Need to Pee
One of the busier US ski areas this season has been Jackson Hole. Besieged by locals, a large worker population and ski visitors, many of them Ikon Pass holders, this has been compounded by stellar snow conditions. Resident Geoff Gottlieb says that lines for the Tram have been twice to four times as long as usual due to crowds as well as limited capacity courtesy of COVID protocols. “So, much longer waits, a lot less skiing, and difficulty staying warm, at least so far,” he says. “Never seen anything like it in 11 years.” Gondola lines can be 30 minutes or more each day, he says. Shunning all mountain restaurants and shops, Gottlieb even avoids restrooms. “So most days it’s ‘ski until you have to pee’ and then go home. Bottom line, way fewer ski days and vertical feet skied. Will probably start hitting the backcountry more from mid Feb.”
With Jackson Hole hot on implementing and enforcing COVID restrictions such as mask-wearing, lift-line separation, daily skier cap, and limited ski camps and lessons, Gottlieb has felt very safe all season. “In spite of US resorts being open, the numbers are starting to fall now that the vaccines are being rolled out,” he adds. “I know there was an expectation that Jackson Hole Mountain Resort would close early this season too, but I don’t see that happening now. The risk level in Teton County spiked to ‘purple’ in January but it is now back down to ‘red’.”
Lift-lines are lengthy in Tahoe, too. Jo Simpson, from the National Ski Council Federation, has been trying to avoid them by skiing the northerly resorts such as Northstar, Alpine Meadows and Tahoe Donner. “We are skiing the major resorts less because the lift lines are very long even during the week because they can only load two people per four seater chair,” she says. Skiing and outdoor socialising have provided “a light at the end of a very long COVID tunnel,” she says. “Professionally our Far West Ski Association has held Zoom board and committee meetings which has been good for continued conduct of the Association's business but lacked the social experience of getting together. The National Ski Council Federation held our annual meeting virtually which allowed us to conduct necessary business but we didn't have the usual day of presentations and panel sessions.”
Carry On Skiing
Big snow dumps, the allure of outdoor activity, and the flexibility of home-based work has meant that Tahoe resorts have been burgeoning with San Francisco and Bay Area visitors in particular this winter. COVID has been ravaging California since last spring despite having tougher restrictions than most US states. Consequently, wintersports have been a lifeline for many. “Skiing has vastly improved our quality of life during COVID,” says Simpson. “Our Master's race training has been the only in person socialisation with friends that we have had since March 2020. Everything else has been virtual.”
With city dwellers seeking weekend retreats, many ski towns are experiencing a real estate boom. A recent National Association of Realtors report showed a surge of interest from cities like Boston, Chicago, New York, and Minneapolis seeking getaways within driving distance. Also digital nomads are creating a ‘Zoom Town’ effect, choosing mountain areas to work remotely.
Although most Europeans think of US skiing in Western resorts in Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and California, there are dozens of ski resorts in the East. Kristine Keeney has been pursuing her goal of 100 days on the slopes this winter at smaller independent Eastern ski areas in her home state of Maine in order to avoid crowds. At weekends she retreats to the backcountry. Her après is confined to open fire pits at restaurants such as the Shipyard Brew Haus at Sunday River and at resort bases like Black Mountain:
“It’s a real treat to actually be able to spend time safely with friends outside.” Known on Instagram as #kneedippinginger, the telemarker says that skiing has been her “mental sanity” this winter: “Besides wearing a mask regularly while skiing, and avoiding breaks in lodges, skiing is one of the places that things almost feel normal. There are very few places and scenarios where life can nearly function as normal, and skiing outside in the fresh air is truly one of those places.”
With hotels open, resorts like Sunday River are busier than usual even during the week due to so many people ‘working from home’ and able to take snow days whenever conditions appeal. “The visitors seem happy to be able to be there and not stuck at their 9-5 jobs all week, although as a jaded local, I hope they have to go back to the office for next season,” says Keeney.
In a country of much mask controversy, she feels for the ski patrollers having to enforce mask wearing. “I have personally seen some tense conversations and the frustration on the patrollers’ faces, as well as stories from friends who patrol about having to argue with people who just refuse to follow the rules,” she explains. “But I will say overall, I’ve been impressed with the number of people who are doing the right thing and wearing face coverings, limiting time inside, etc. In terms of what I have been doing differently, it’s mostly just avoiding breaks in the lodge. I actually just ordered a hydration vest (typically won by trail runners) so that I have easier access to water while I’m out, without having to go into the lodge.”
Working on multi-use trail development in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Keeney noted increased use in 2020 of the trail network from 60-300 percent compared to 2019. “People are out in force,” she says. “At resorts, backcountry trail heads, and other winter activities like crosscountry skiing, snowshoeing, and ice skating.” Although Northern Maine has low COVID numbers and Keeney has felt safe skiing all season, she wishes that cross-state and international travel could be prevented especially with new variants starting to spread:
“As someone who lives in rural Maine, it has been very frustrating to see how people seem to be able to come here from places with much higher case counts with impunity. We aren’t traveling down there in big numbers, but they’re coming up here and there’s really no way to enforce the travel restrictions, testing and quarantining.”
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