By Brice Wallace
Snow. Slopes. Skis.
Those have been the key ingredients for Utah ski resorts’ success in years past. This year, they’re adding “safety.”
The COVID-19 pandemic ended the 2019-20 ski season early, and Utah’s 15 resorts have been planning and putting in place safeguards to ensure they can stay open — albeit with fewer patrons — during the upcoming season.
Nathan Rafferty, president and CEO of Ski Utah, said this is the most anticipated opening of a ski season that he can remember in his 24 years with Ski Utah.
“Our ski areas closed the weekend of March 14 last season, resulting in the longest off-season in the history of skiing in Utah,” he said during a pre-season news conference. “The upside of that is that resorts started preparing for this ski season on Monday, March 16, so I think we’re as prepared as any.”
The resorts have made “Herculean efforts” and worked with the National Ski Areas Association to develop and implement best practices with the ongoing pandemic in mind.
Davy Ratchford, general manager at Snowbasin, said the National Ski Areas Association playbooks have been customized to individual ski areas, based on local health departments and guidance coming from state government.
“We continue to evolve and create new plans and procedures so we can keep our guests safe and our employees safe,” he said.
Among the changes at the various resorts are implementing social distancing, “spreading out” skier visits, reducing visitations, requiring face coverings, and requiring reservations for skiing and parking. For example, families may ride the Snowbasin gondola together, but if a person wants to ride by himself or herself, they can.
Getting to the gondola with six-foot distancing “does create a longer maze than maybe what the guests are used to,” Ratchford said, “but it’s exactly what we need to do.”
Volumes of people in guest lodges likewise will be reduced. Snowbasin has purchased new yurts, knowing the lodge capacity would be shrunk. In order to keep people outside as much as possible, some resorts have added bathroom trailers, slopeside dining units and food trailers. Some are requiring all food orders be to-go or encouraging people to eat outside or in their cars.
“What we want to do is create an environment that feels safe and that shows that we can operate a ski area with social distancing in mind,” Ratchford said.
One policy with no wiggle room is the requirement to wear a mask or other face covering, Ratchford said. While most skiers wear masks to keep warm outside, “just to remind people, it’s not a discussion item,” he said. “It’s not something we’re going to debate when you come up to the resort. We’re going to have you wear masks. And we want people to be safe and have our guests and our employees feel safe while at work.”
“If people aren’t wearing face coverings, they won’t be allowed on lifts,” reiterated Mike Maughan, general manager at the Alta Ski Area.
Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the infectious disease division at University of Utah Health, said skiing is relatively safe during the pandemic.
“I think it’s important to remember — and this doesn’t apply just to skiing — there is no such thing as perfectly safe and definitely bad. Everything is a continuum of risk.”
The worst environment is a bar packed with maskless, yelling people, in a place with perhaps not the best ventilation, he said. “If you look at skiing, it’s actually pretty good, OK?” Swaminathan said. “It would be considered a relatively low-risk activity if you follow the precautions.”
“Being outdoors and riding chair lifts and skiing, the risks of infection spread is quite minimal, compared to indoor spaces,” Maughan said. “So I think our indoor spaces are getting the bulk of our attention for trying to spread people out and make sure people are wearing masks.”
Dave Fields, general manager at Snowbird, said ski resorts “have thousands of acres where you can spread out” and have physical distancing.
“I would say based on what I saw this summer and fall at trailheads, a lot of people are excited to get out and be in nature with their families,” Fields said.
One change at Snowbird is limiting the number of people on the tram to 25. Another focuses on parking.
“By having a parking reservation, people will have the confidence to know that they have a spot on the hill and that it will be with the right number on the mountain, given the number of lifts and terrain that we have open,” Fields said.
Several speakers said skiers should be sure to do more planning than usual because resorts have different approaches for season pass holders, advance ticket sales, parking management and ski schools.
“Plan ahead, get your tickets early, make your reservations if you need to, and you’ll have a great time on the mountain,” said Jessica Miller, communications manager at Park City Mountain.
Rafferty chipped in with another suggestion.
“When you do to ski or ride, bring along with you patience and gratitude,” he said. “We don’t do anything today like we did pre-March 14, and there’s going to be a little bit of a learning curve. … We should all be thankful we’ve got skiing and riding at all these days.”
Whatever 2020-21 holds, the coronavirus wiped out a chance for a record season in 2019-20. It still was the fourth-best season ever, with nearly 4.4 million skier visits, despite an estimated $232.4 million in revenue lost because of COVID-19-related closures.
“We’ve kind of thrown all our metrics of success out the window for this season,” Rafferty said. “A successful year for us is going to be to get open and to stay open. I’m confident we can do that and I’m confident we can offer a safe way to recreate for Utah residents and guests who choose to travel.”