By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONWAY – Ski areas are preparing their trails and snowmaking equipment for another season, which for some begins in about 12 weeks, but this year’s preparation also includes consideration for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Jessyca Keeler, president of Ski New Hampshire, which represents most of the state’s alpine and cross country ski areas said the resorts are working on changing conditions and situations.
But she said the mantra will be “Know before you Go,” with more online pre-purchase of tickets, crowd control measures on the lifts and in the lodge.
Vail Resorts, which now owns about 25 percent of the state’s ski business with Wildcat, Attitash, Crotched, and the lease at Mount Sunapee, said it will go to a reservation system on busy days with priority going to season pass holders, and there will be changes to lift lines and who you go up the lift with.
No more meeting up with random strangers who are singles in line, it seems.
The industry is also holding out hope that a vaccine for the novel coronavirus can be found and administered this winter, but they are not holding their breath on that.
“We’re literally in the middle of working on drafting guidance now so there are still some unknowns at this point,” said Keeler, and of course at the end of the day, the state Department of Health and Human Services will essentially hand down the final ruling. She said she has seen Vail Resorts’ plan and “that isn’t necessarily what everyone else is planning (or could plan, for that matter),” at this point. Some changes are likely universal, particularly for loading a chairlift.
For example, Keeler said, skiers and riders will need to wear masks inside as well as in areas where six feet of physical distancing isn’t possible. Resorts will encourage people to buy tickets online in advance to avoid lines at ticket windows, “and it’s possible that some services or other operational elements of skiing at any particular resort may be either unavailable or adjusted this year.”
“What all of this points to is the fact that in order for people to ensure the best possible experience for a day on the slopes or trails, they need to do some research and plan ahead,” she said.
Last year, ski resorts closed abruptly in March, killing their spring skiing season, but that was better to them than spreading the deadly virus to thousands. The industry has had the summer to think about how they can adapt and are now implementing their plans which are becoming part of their agreements with their skiers and riders.
For many, Labor Day weekend is a deadline to purchase passes at the lowest possible rates.
“The pandemic and our desire to both be open and keep everyone – guests and employees alike – safe means that we’re going to be making adjustments to how we operate, and it’s so important that folks take a little time to know what to expect or what new protocols might be in place before they hop in their car and arrive at any given ski area. With everyone working together and being patient during this unprecedented time, we believe we can still have a fantastic – and safe! – ski season.”
Gov. Chris Sununu, whose family owns and operates one of the state’s largest ski resorts in the state, Waterville Valley, said he expects there to be a focus on limited indoor access and wearing masks, which he said, for skiers and riders is easy because they often wear warm face coverings.
Sununu said some ski areas may go to an indoor reservation system for seating.
He said state health officials are now working with ski industry operators to craft guidance and that some of the universal guidance and restaurant guidance that the state has produced will apply to ski resorts as well.
Vail Resorts, which in addition to its New Hampshire properties operate 34 resorts around the world issued a press release recently outlining its plans for the upcoming season.
Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz announced the operating plan with the goal of ensuring a safe, enjoyable, and successful ski and ride season.
“We are fortunate that our core experience of skiing and riding takes place outdoors, across huge mountains, offering fresh air and wide-open spaces for our guests. However, to help protect our guests, our employees, and our communities amid this pandemic, some changes will be required this season,” said Katz.
One goal is to stay open and not have to close due to an outbreak.
“We do not want to be caught off guard or find ourselves needing to make reactionary changes. Striving for consistency will provide our guests, employees, and communities with as much predictability as possible this season, which we believe is worth the extra effort.”
Key changes outlined in the plan include:
– Guests will be required to wear face coverings to get on the mountain and in all parts of resort operations, including in lift lines and riding in lifts and gondolas.
– To maintain physical distancing on our chairlifts and gondolas, Vail will only be seating related parties (guests skiing or riding together) or: two singles on opposite sides of a four-person lift; two singles or two doubles on opposite sides of a six-person lift; or two singles on opposite sides of our larger gondola cabins.
– Ski and ride school will be offered and on-mountain dining will be open, but with changes to help keep guests safe.
– Mountain access will be managed to ensure guests have the space they need. As such, the company announced a mountain access reservation system and limits on lift tickets to prioritize its pass holders.
“For the vast majority of days during the season, we believe everyone who wants to get on our mountains will be able to. However, we are not planning for the majority of days, we are planning for every day of the season,” said Katz.
“We want to provide assurance to our guests that we will do our very best to minimize crowds at all times – be it a holiday weekend or the unpredictable powder day. We believe this approach will help ensure a safe experience for everyone while prioritizing access for our pass holders.”