Ski and Snowboard Resorts During Covid-19: What To Know

It's hard to know what to expect on the mountain this year, thanks to Covid-19. Expert Aidan Anderson gives you the scoop on what we're hearing from resorts so far.

Photo by Jean-Baptiste
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For people across the world, the weeks and months leading up to winter and ski season are some of the most exciting times of the year. Getting gear out of storage, shopping for new stuff, and watching the snow start to fall while anxiously awaiting the opening day of our favorite resorts. This year however, I think it’s clear to everyone that things are going to be very different for most of us. Earlier this year as the pandemic began to spread and worsen, we saw the closure of nearly all ski resorts across the country and beyond. As heartbreaking as it was to see our season cut short, it more than likely played a huge role in ensuring employees were safe, and travel was minimized.

Resorts have spent the months since then frantically trying to re-evaluate their operations and customer-facing policies to adapt to this strange new world we’re living in. Different corporations, local regulations, and access to facilities across resorts means that there’s no one plan to suit everyone. We’ve heard from some of the larger players like Vail Resorts and Alterra Mountain Company on broad strokes for the resorts under their umbrella, but also from smaller, more private resorts across the country. It’s a lot to take in, and a lot to consider, so let’s break down some of the more important things to know about how Covid-19 will impact our winter season.

Two people in masks ride a chairlift

The Basics

First off, there’s a few basic things that will be adopted at all resorts, as they already have been in most of our daily lives. Many resorts across the country operate during the summer months as well for things like mountain biking, hiking, and other summer activities. As a result, there are already many procedures in place that have been tailored to their lodges, base areas, and some of their operations. Certain things will definitely need to be altered for winter conditions, weather, and the nuances of ski and snowboard recreation, but there’s a pretty solid groundwork for dealing with the broad strokes.

Face coverings will be required in all aspects of resort operations, from lodges and loading lifts, to ski and snowboard schools. As is stated several times across the Vail Resorts website, “No one will be permitted on the mountain without a face covering.” However, it remains to be seen what enforcement will look like, and also the standard of what may be considered adequate face coverings. Some resorts have already stated that the single-layer buffs and neck warmers most people already commonly wear on the mountain will not be considered up to standard, as they do not provide a significant enough barrier over the nose and mouth. In that case, it may fall to the resorts to have a plan in place for providing face coverings to patrons to ensure 100% compliance.

A skier in a face covering holds their skis over their shoulder

Reservation Systems

Next, there’s the issue of physical distancing, and the thing most of us have probably heard and felt rather uneasy about thanks to the potential for reservation based systems and diminished capacity on the mountain. The first to announce a reservation system was Vail, which will be consistent across all 34 of their North American resorts. It’s a bit confusing, but here are the major points:

  • All pass holders will have to make a reservation before arriving at the mountain.
  • Pass holders will be able to make as many week-of reservations throughout the season as their pass type allows, which will depend on different price brackets and blackout days, etc.
  • Ticket sales will not begin until December 8th, regardless of early season operations. Until then, access will be reserved for pass holders only.
  • In addition to week-of reservations, pass holders will have the ability to reserve seven priority days over the course of the core season (Dec. 8 through April 4).

Despite many resorts adopting such a reservation policy however, not all have gone quite so far. Alterra, for example, is leading the pack of resorts that have said they will not implement a true reservations system. That being said, their solution seems to be basically a reservation system in disguise… Here are the broad strokes:

  • No walk-up ticket sales will be permitted. All ticket sales will be in advance and subject to a reduced resort capacity that will prioritize pass holders.
  • Tickets may still be purchased on the day you want to ski if they are not sold out, but still will only be available for online purchase.
  • Walk-up rentals and lessons will remain available, though they will not be connected to ticket sales and cannot guarantee a slot on the mountain.

So, basically, this season might be a good year to buy a pass if you think you’ll get enough use out of it. That said, if you don’t think a pass is cost effective for your skiing, make sure to plan ahead of time, and don’t leave ski plans to the last minute.

A gondola moves its way along the wires

Photo by Michal Mrozek

Crowd Control

The next big change is, as I mentioned above, the idea of a reduced capacity on the mountain. This looks to be pretty uniform across resorts, and consists of a few big ideas. Chairlifts, trams, gondolas, magic carpets, pretty much anything that is meant to move you up the mountain will be at about 50% capacity. This means plexiglass dividers in enclosed carriers, every other seat spaced on lifts, and even shuttle capacities for base transport will be at half capacity. It appears as though there will be an exception for families or small groups traveling or skiing together, but it doesn’t seem like that idea is well ironed out yet.

One of the most comprehensive changes resorts are facing is how to accommodate people indoors. Lodges need to be open for when the weather gets bad, food service needs to be able to run with limited seating, and employees need to be able to count on a safe work environment. Rest assured though, because this is one problem all resorts have a huge incentive to tackle. Season pass and ticket sales are good for resorts; they cover things like operating costs and give them an idea of how much traffic to expect. However, those areas are not where the profit margins are. Food and beverage sales make up a massive chunk of the revenue for resorts, and as a result are something they can’t afford to lose. We can expect to see things like pre-packaged food options, one-way traffic in cafeterias, expanded outdoor seating, and limited openings for things like bars and lounges.

Resorts will likely do their best to steer some people away from more impacted lodging and dining, however. As Squaw Valley’s website states, “This season will be more about skiing and riding, less about being in the lodge.”

A crowd of people wait to board a gondola

You're going to see a lot less of this. Photo by Mael Balland

Mountain Operations

Another area we are going to see impacted is in mountain operations. Even tasks like scouting terrain or responding to incidents will be more difficult for ski patrol, and small tasks are likely to take longer. Most mountains appear to be building ski teams and lessons into their operations plan which will make day ticket holders sink a bit lower on the totem pole. Lift lines will be spread out and wait times will probably be longer. Most mountains are planning to run their competition and events departments at full steam, which will contribute to closed areas and less room and tolerance for both spectators and gatherings. As frustrating as some of these things are bound to be, it’s important to remember that the teams organizing these changes are made up of skiers and riders just like the rest of us. They’ve been tasked with making changes to allow for resorts to continue to operate safely, and continue to allow all of us access to play in the mountains. Their jobs are not easy, and there’s no precedent for how anyone should be dealing with this.

How to Prepare

On that note, let’s break down a few of the things you can do to make all this easier for yourself, and save everyone involved from at least some of the hassle.

  • If you’re on the fence about buying vs renting gear, this may be the season to get your own setup. Rental shops are going to be operating at an extremely minimal capacity, and some may do away with many steps of their fitting processes to cut down on close-quarters interactions. This means longer wait times, the potential for lower quality fitting, and increased prices. If you are still planning on renting, be sure to make reservations and secure your gear well in advance.
  • Secure your lodging and tickets in advance and at the same time. Because so many people are working remotely, traveling is going to be easier and more popular for many people this season. This means lodging is going to be harder to find, and prices will likely go up.
  • If you’re a season passholder, take advantage and make use of your priority registration days. If you think you might want to be on the mountain during the holidays, for your birthday, or anything else, secure them well ahead of time. There’s no telling how things will shake out, and that’s the most concrete thing we have at the moment.
  • Monitor what the individual resorts are saying. Even though most of us are going to resorts owned by larger corporations, they’re still going to have individual rules and policies that will impact their patrons. Plus, smaller, private resorts can make up their own rules as they go along. Stay informed about your local mountain, and that way you won’t be blindsided by something you weren’t aware of when you arrive to ski.
A chairlift works its way up the hill between snowy trees

Photo by Jackson Blackhurst

Final Thoughts

Lastly, a word on traveling this season. With workers going remote, people stoked to get outside, and resorts opening soon, it’s incredibly important to keep local communities in the forefront of our consideration. Small mountain towns that are host to larger ski resorts have been hit incredibly hard by Covid-19, and are at extreme risk during peak travel seasons. We rely on the communities in these towns to keep everything open, running, and able to host all of us who want to play in the snow. Paying attention to local regulations, supporting local small businesses, and doing everything we can to be safe and considerate is what’s going to ensure we can take full advantage of this season.

With that, get your skis and snowboards waxed, keep your eye on the weather forecast, and with any luck we’ll all be back sliding on snow soon!

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Written By
I first got on skis at 2 years old, and have loved it ever since! Growing up in Lake Tahoe, California, everything was based around skiing and being on the snow. ​ After working in rental shops for years and seeing how many people are excited about getting their own gear and getting out on the hill,...

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