With many ski resorts planning to limit capacity in their base lodge this season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, skiers and riders should be ready for a new routine. Jaycee Clark, who owns Norm’s Ski and Bike Shop in Keene, said one of those changes may recall a previous era.
“The big difference [will be] putting your boots on at the car, the same as we used to do back in the ’60s and ’70s,” he said.
But any 2020 amnesia will vanish when people trudge to the mountain, as resorts have implemented a number of protocols in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Reopening plans announced recently by several local peaks draw heavily from public health guidelines for the ski industry that Gov. Chris Sununu’s Reopening Task Force approved Oct. 2. Those guidelines require people waiting in chairlift lines to maintain six feet of distance from each other and wear face coverings — without air vents, unlike many of the popular balaclava-style masks — and also that staff members are screened for COVID-19 symptoms and exposure before work. In addition, they recommend that resorts prohibit strangers from riding the lift together.
At Pats Peak in Henniker, employees stationed at the base lodge will regulate the number of people inside at one time, according to the resort’s marketing and sales director, Lori Rowell.
Rowell said skiers should consider their vehicles as a “personal base lodge” where they can store belongings and put on their gear, even encouraging people to bring folding chairs and small rugs. Pats Peak has also added new amenities, she noted, including portable heated restrooms, approximately 30 new picnic tables outside and wooden “cabanas” to protect skiers from the elements.
“We always thought we would have some sort of ski season, or were very hopeful,” she said. “… It was exciting to get the guidelines. We’re just working with that and trying to figure out how we’re going to do it.”
Although the resort’s lodge will remain open for indoor dining at limited capacity, Rowell said patrons can also order food from its cafeterias on a mobile application and pick it up at a window outside. Space heaters and plastic wind shields will be installed to insulate outdoor diners, she added.
Pats Peak also plans to restrict the number of lift tickets available for purchase to prevent crowding, though it has not yet settled on a precise cap, Rowell explained. Still, she said, the resort will prohibit skiers from sharing a lift with strangers, which could lead to delays.
“I would imagine on busier days … it would probably be [a longer wait] because obviously we would [have] put people together before to fill up the chairs,” she said.
Vail Resorts, the Colorado-based company that operates Mount Sunapee in Newbury and Crotched Mountain in Bennington, will have similar COVID-19 protocols at those resorts but expects “a full mountain experience” this winter, according to its Northeast communications manager, Bonnie MacPherson.
The company’s restrictions include limiting the number of skiers at its mountains, which MacPherson said may curb the windfall days they have enjoyed in the past. However, she is hopeful that people working remotely and with greater schedule flexibility will be more likely to ski during the week.
To limit capacity, Vail Resorts’ peaks — which also include Mount Snow in Somerset, Vt., and Okemo Mountain Resort in Ludlow, Vt. — will require patrons to purchase lift tickets in advance online.
“For the vast majority of days, we expect we’ll be able to accommodate everyone,” she said. “The reservation system is really in place for those high-demand days.”
MacPherson explained that Vail Resorts granted credits to its season pass holders for the upcoming year after the 2019–20 season was cut short due to the pandemic. Starting Nov. 6, pass holders will also be able to reserve lift tickets for up to seven days this season and will have exclusive access to the mountains until Dec. 8, when the general public can begin purchasing tickets, she said.
The company’s New England resorts have also seen an uptick in applicants for roles that do not typically draw much interest, such as hospitality and mountain operations positions, according to MacPherson.
“It just feels really good … to see people who have been furloughed coming back,” she said. “… There are a lot of people looking for work, and we’ve got a lot of positions to fill.”
Rowell said Pats Peak hopes to open in early December. The resort will require skiers to reserve lift tickets online and purchased hands-free kiosks that can scan the barcode on their reservation and print a ticket, she explained.
Pats Peak will also allow anyone who has already purchased a ticket and contracts, or is showing symptoms of, COVID-19 to reschedule their reservation, according to Rowell. She encouraged skiers to consult the resort’s coronavirus protocols before arriving at the mountain.
If early-season activity at Norm’s Ski and Bike Shop is any indication, Monadnock Region residents are eager to hit the slopes again.
Clark said ski apparel and equipment sales increased when resorts started announcing their reopening plans and have been “a lot stronger” than he expected. That timeline is similar to past years, when Norm’s has typically begun selling ski gear — much of it from the previous season — at its Columbus Day sale, he added.
But Clark explained that the usual mid-October spike in skiing-related purchases is particularly important for the shop this year because it lost revenue when resorts shut down in March.
“We just kind of put the ski equipment away until this point,” he said.
Clark also said many people have been asking when Norm’s will begin offering equipment tune-ups.
An increase in demand for skiing merchandise may even create a shortage of available inventory, similar to what has happened with bike sales during the pandemic, according to Clark. (Norm’s currently has 400 bicycles on back order.) He said a shortage could result, in part, from coronavirus-related delays among Asian manufacturers, though he added that it would most likely affect Nordic skiing merchandise, since that activity is particularly conducive to social distancing.
Clark and his wife, Patty, have already purchased their season passes. He expects that safety protocols, particularly those limiting lodge capacity and regulating lift procedures, will be an adjustment for resorts as well as patrons.
“It [requires] a little more planning ahead of time,” he said. “All the ski areas are just going to kind of see how things go and maybe change things as it happens.”