By PAULA TRACY, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD – Skiers and riders at New Hampshire’s ski areas this winter will likely buy their pass online, boot up in their cars in the parking lot, wear a mask on the lift and buy their lunch at a food truck parked by the lodge.
With the season now fewer than eight weeks away in some cases, the industry put forth its vision for a COVID-19 ski season to the state on Thursday.
Industry officials offered their “trail map” to navigate the pandemic at ski areas to the Governor’s Economic Reopening Task Force, which unanimously approved the document.
The document now goes to state health officials and Gov. Chris Sununu to consider.
It follows similar protocols being developed throughout the country by ski areas which shut down in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some large ski resort conglomerates, like Vail, which now owns a handful of New Hampshire ski areas, have said they will limit capacity and give preference to their season pass holders.
This document does not address capacity.
Ski New Hampshire, which represents most alpine and Nordic ski areas in the state, stressed that the state’s ski areas have “built a culture of safety” which has been maintained throughout its more than 80 years as a “shared” responsibility between its patrons and staff to keep everyone safe.
Skiers and riders follow a national code of conduct to protect each other and the rules of that code will now essentially extend to the chairlift, gondola, lodge, and apres-ski bar to protect from COVID-19, not just an on-hill collision.
It is unknown if Sununu will weigh in from his own perspective or recuse himself, as his family is the majority owner of Waterville Valley, one of the state’s largest ski resorts. Prior to being elected governor, Sununu served as its chief executive officer but severed his official ties with the resort’s operations. The Sununu family remains the owner of Waterville Valley.
In its document, Ski New Hampshire said it views the area of most concern to public health as the base lodges and how people will be allowed inside to warm up, use the washrooms, and access retail.
“The outdoors is much more manageable,” said Bruce Berke, a member of the task force and lobbyist for Ski NH, calling the indoor spaces in the lodges the industry’s “pinch-points” during the pandemic.
Jessyca Keeler, president of Ski NH, said uniformity of guidance would be helpful for guests to understand when they ski throughout New Hampshire.
“Generally we want to be getting out the same message,” Keeler said noting people ski different areas.
Keeler predicted “there is going to be a lot less time spent indoors this year by skiers,” at ski areas.
Tom Day, general manager of Gunstock ski area in Gilford and a member of Ski NH, said there is a large database that the ski areas have to be able to communicate with guests, and a lot of the state guidance, once established, will be shared.
“Your car will be your locker room now,” said Day, “It may also be where you eat your lunch,” he said.
The suggested guidance states that the ski area food and beverage will follow already approved state restaurant guidance, that ski retail shops would follow state retail guidance in terms of capacity and that tables in the lodges will be configured to allow six feet of distance between tables.
“Skiers also are accustomed to bringing in their boot bags and leaving their belongings in the lodges (under tables, in corners or edges of the room, in cubbies) – this year, this practice will be highly discouraged or simply not allowed.”
Ski areas along with Ski NH will work to educate people about the need for people to leave most of their belongings in their cars, boot up in the parking lot, and only bring absolute essentials (e.g., wallets, medications) with them to the base area and/or on the hill, the Ski NH document states.
To reduce contact with staff, ski areas will switch to all-online ticket purchasing to avoid ticket lines; add food trucks to offer outdoor food and beverage options, add porta-potties and warming tents and offer advanced online equipment rentals, it states.
Before the pandemic, which has killed 438 residents so far and sickened thousands, the industry had been moving increasingly to a touchless transaction, with many offering online purchases at a discount.
Lift attendants manually checking passes have in some cases been replaced with automated RFID systems (radio frequency identification) and skiers are accustomed to wearing face coverings and gloves to shield themselves from the cold, the document notes.
Face coverings will be required in the lodge, in lift lines, and on lifts but not while skiing or riding, under the proposed guidance.
On gondolas with a capacity of four, only those who are in the same family or group will be allowed to load together. For larger gondolas which seat eight, only two unrelated guests will be allowed to ride together and the windows in all cases shall remain open.
Bus shuttles will also keep their windows open, passengers and drivers will be required to wear masks, but the proposed bus guidance does not limit the capacity of the bus.
Employees will be screened for COVID-19 symptoms before each shift but skiers and riders will not have to do that.
Instead, they will be asked those questions online when they make their purchase for lift tickets. Those with season passes will not be asked such questions.
Additional sanitization protocols would be in place and hand sanitizer will be made available to all in the lodges. One directional flow of traffic will be encouraged at all facilities.
Ski and ride school participants shall be required to follow the guidance of social distancing and face masks, as will competitions.
Nordic competitions will eliminate mass-starts and go-to staggered starts. On-site awards ceremonies will not be allowed. Child care services at ski resorts will follow state COVID-19 child care guidance.
The document will now be reviewed by officials at the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Nationally the industry has created a document to help guide its resorts to a healthy ski season during the pandemic. A copy of the document is here https://nsaa.org/Webdocs/Resources/Coronavirus/Playbook/SkiWellBeWell_2020.pdf.
What ski areas do not want is a situation like last March which forced all ski areas to close before the snow melted.
Some in the industry note that the virus itself will dictate the terms and will pose the most serious threat to operation until a vaccine to fight it is both found and widely distributed.
That is not likely to happen before the snow falls and the chairs start turning on cables in November and December.
Phil Bryce, state parks director, and a member of the task force, said the tramway at Cannon Mountain holds 70 people and will not be operational, at least at the beginning of the season.
But he said the state may come back to the task force later in the season if they think they can do that.
Bryce said the toughest part of the guidance will be keeping personal items in one’s car, noting that families with gear are accustomed to getting ready and eating their packed lunch in the lodge.
Keeler noted that the draft guidance states bags would be “discouraged” and not banned.
Berke said the draft guidance is intentionally left flexible, noting for example, that midweek skiing is much less crowded than weekend skiing.
D.J. Bettencourt, the governor’s policy director and the chair of the task force, said the industry “put together a good draft,” and said there is concern for uniformity.
“A principle of this task force has been to provide significant and wide outreach to stakeholders,” he said.
Keeler said there have been weekly meetings among the industry since March which have been open to “all of our ski area members.”
SKI NH does not represent Attitash, Wildcat, Crotched Mountain, and several other areas but a majority of the state’s ski areas are members.
One member, she said, which is part of a large conglomerate (Sunapee is owned by Vail) has been on the calls and there has been a lot of feedback.
Commissioner of Business and Economic Affairs Taylor Caswell said it was worth noting that, as someone who skis a lot, and as someone who is in charge of promoting tourism, the work here in the industry has been “rather extraordinary” to produce a reasonable and consistent set of guidelines.
“I am looking forward to a good ski season coming up,” Caswell said.
The approved draft guidance will be passed on to Dr. Benjamin Chan, state epidemiologist, for edits and review, and then sent to the governor for approval.
Patricia Tilley, deputy director of the state Division of Public Health, gave the task force her weekly overview of the COVID-19 situation in the state.
There are currently 266 active cases of the virus, 438 deaths have occurred from it and currently, 17 people are hospitalized for the virus.
Her information noted an uptick in the area of community transmission over previous weeks to 36.6 percent and that transmission is “minimal” in all areas of the state except for Manchester, Nashua, and Strafford County which are considered “moderate” and noted that the highest rate of new cases identified among work-age adults is in the 20-29.
The state has a .9 percent rate of positivity among its PCR tests for the COVID-19 age range, down from about 1 percent over the past month.
A total of 29,205 PCR tests have been administered in the state as of Sept. 24.
Currently, the retail guidance puts capacity at 50 percent in retail stores. Nancy Kyle, a member of the task force, and president at the chief executive officer of the New Hampshire Retailers Association, asked the task force to consider recommending a change to allow retail the option to go to 100 percent occupancy, with six-foot of the distance between customers.
It was approved and also moves on to state health officials and the governor for consideration.
“We are heading into the Christmas season. We need to do everything we can to support” local businesses, she said.
Some businesses might want to maintain 50 percent capacity for their own reasons but argued that the businesses should be given the option to go to 100 percent, she said.
Rep. Tim Lang, R-Sanbornton, a member of the task force, asked it to visit the current cosmetology guidelines, specifically as they relate to barbershops and hairdressers.
He said what was “a little unnerving” was that he was forced to stand in line outside for a haircut with others, with the reception area closed. Lang wants to open reception areas as long as people can achieve social distancing of six feet between clients and allow for walk-ins.
It will be the subject of discussion next week when the task force meets and takes public comment on Thursday, Oct. 1.
The task force also fielded a number of public comments related to the pandemic.
A state health order withholding unnecessary stockpiling of the drug hydroxychloroquine was rescinded by state health officials on Sept. 1. Callers complained that it was hard to find that information online and that doctors don’t know that.
One person called to complain about the need for masks in church, saying people are very distressed. Others complained about requirements for the use of masks and issues related to local control on that issue and individual business rules.
An official with the New Hampshire Boxing and Wrestling Commission called to say promoters from out of state are calling to say they are getting questions on specific guidelines toward those sorts of events.
A woman called to ask the state to lift all restrictions and for state health officials to share what metrics it, the task force, and the governor used to determine guidelines. She claimed the current situation is unnecessarily inflicting economic harm on the state.
One cosmetologist asked to remove the protocol on the use of gloves.