Can Ski Towns Keep it Safe?

All month, Hebert and her staff had listened to customers describe their trips across the state border, in clear violation of Vermont’s universal quarantine rules for travelers. But the Christmas weekend crowd brought the shop over capacity, she said, preventing at-risk local customers from shopping at their neighborhood grocery st

The Sunday after Christmas, Hebert and her partner announced they were cutting back to curbside service only.

“This is killing our business,” Hebert said this week. “It’s hurting sales so bad. But it’s so much more important to us to have our neighbors be safe.”

For weeks, businesses on the runup to Mount Snow have been cutting service or closing while nearby infection rates rise. Other ski towns like Killington, Stockbridge, Warren and Burke have seen elevated numbers too, according to Department of Health data.

The increases come amid a ski season like no other. Resorts are limiting capacity and asking out-of-state guests to affirm that they quarantined before arriving. But complaints about rule-breakers have poured in, stirring anxiety that ski tourism is driving community virus spread.

The Department of Health has said the data doesn’t bear that out. “Right now, it doesn’t appear that out-of-state visitors are a significant source of infection in Vermont,” said Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan on Thursday. “Certainly there are some, and we know that through contact tracing. But we’re not seeing that the out-of-state visitors to ski resorts are driving significant numbers. This really still continues to be a homegrown situation.”

The cases associated with ski areas have mostly been employees, Dolan said, and resorts don’t appear to have higher rates of infection than other kinds of workplaces.

But the town-by-town numbers — and the steady flow of tourists — have some locals uneasy about the remainder of the ski season.

What would make a difference for her business, Hebert said, would be “the guarantee that people that were traveling for a day trip from out of state had either tested negative or done a full two weeks quarantine prior to coming.” But with tourists on the honor system, she said, that’s not likely to happen. “I don’t believe that everybody’s going to be honest about it.”

The Deeper Dig is a weekly podcast from the VTDigger newsroom, a VT Ski + Ride publishing partner. Listen below or read the transcript.

**Podcast transcript**

This week: Martin Luther King Day marks one of the biggest ski weekends in Vermont in a typical year. But this is not a typical year. Travelers to Vermont are subject to universal quarantine requirements – and while there’s anxiety about how that will impact the tourism economy, resort communities are also worried about what happens when travelers break the rules.

Heather Hebert runs the Jacksonville General Store, about four miles from the Massachusetts border.

Heather Hebert: If you look out my window, I’m at the intersection of Route 100 and 112. I’m the first store in Vermont on your way to Mount Snow.

Normally, shoppers would head to Heather’s store for groceries, sandwiches, craft beer. They have a sterling 5-star rating on Facebook. But right now their doors are closed — they’ve switched to all curbside orders because they believe the Covid risk is too high. And it’s having a major impact.

Heather Hebert: This is killing our business. It’s just horrible. People aren’t browsing and grabbing. “Oh, I didn’t realize I needed this,” or, “I didn’t know I wanted to buy a gallon of real Vermont maple syrup” or whatever. It’s hurting sales so bad. But it’s so much more important to us to have our neighbors be safe. And this seems to be the safest way to do it without having to actually close our doors.

Heather said she first started seeing an influx of tourists around Thanksgiving. She talked to her staff about pulling back to curbside, but they decided to keep the doors open for the time being.

Heather Hebert: And during the Christmas holiday week, it was astronomical, the amount of people coming up. They come to the counter, and they were excited they were away for the weekend. And they’d tell us their story, how they were here for the day and it was so nice, and they stopped in the store on the way in, and now that they were going home the next day, they were gonna stop and grab some stuff to bring with them.

They were nice enough about it. But it was very clear that they either completely ignored the guidelines or had no idea what they were.

How do you react when somebody tells you that?

Heather Hebert: You’re a little taken back. I mean, these people, I don’t think they’re doing it out of malice. But it still doesn’t stop the fact that the rate has gone up.

This whole corridor leading up to Mount Snow has seen rising Covid case counts for the past several weeks, according to data from the Health Department. Heather said they’ve seen tourist traffic rise over the same time frame. And over Christmas, it got to be too much.

Heather Hebert: The holiday week, we had been consistently steady, but manageable. Saturday evening, we started to get very busy. And we had all heard the same story, about how much fun they were having and how nice it was to get away just for a weekend or a few days. And Sunday, we were mobbed.

I do not have the staff to man the door. I don’t have the ability to hire somebody to be a bouncer or to ID people. And even if you were to ask them, “Did you quarantine two weeks before?” there’s absolutely no way of proving that these people did or didn’t do the right thing before they headed to Vermont.

I literally couldn’t get to the deli to properly clean it. I knew we were above capacity. And as we were dispersing that, here comes a couple locals who we know very well, we’ve known for years, care about them. They’re geriatric. They’re in the age group of people much less likely to survive Covid. And they have every right to go out and get their quart of milk and their English muffins for the next morning. And here they come, and it was so scary. I could never live with thinking that one of these amazing people that live here went to their general store and got sick.

So that was it. On Sunday night, Heather and her partner posted on Facebook that the store was going curbside effective immediately. They’ve been posting photos of what’s on their shelves so that people can shop virtually. But Heather said running a takeout general store is incredibly complicated.

Heather Hebert: They have to keep track of all these people’s orders, make sure they’re ready, make sure they’re rung in. It’s just a lot of little things that you wouldn’t think of. We actually have a clothesline [that] goes from the cash register right to my deli, and we wing the orders for everything from the butcher shop to our desserts, and the grinders and specials that are being made.

It’s literally a clothesline?

Heather Hebert: It’s literally a clothesline that goes from one end of my store to the other. We hung it up. This will still keep the cashier, because once the cashier disappears, people are at the window going, “Oh, there’s nobody here.” Definitely on the weekends, especially with this MLK weekend, we will have somebody that doesn’t leave the window, and then I will have a shopper that will do the shopping. It costs more and you make a lot less.

Do you have an idea of how much? Have you sat down to crunch the numbers of how much it’s cutting in your sales?

Heather Hebert: I haven’t had the nerve, quite frankly. But it’s thousands. It’s thousands and thousands a week. Just looking at the end of a Friday night — obviously, the weekends in the winter are much bigger for people traveling, the people that in a normal year we would be so happy to see and welcome with open arms, weekenders. I think last weekend, it was about $2,000 less last Friday. So we’re looking at the thousands a week down.

I wonder at this point, what would change things for you? As we’re looking towards the rest of the ski season, these remaining months, what would help your business weather this whole thing?

Heather Hebert: If we could get, in a perfect scenario, the guarantee that people that were traveling for a day trip from out of state had either tested negative or done a full two weeks quarantine prior to coming, something to guarantee that they were not going to come and risk higher-risk people’s lives. And I don’t think that’s possible. I don’t believe that everybody’s going to be honest about it.

This question of keeping tourists honest is front and center at ski resorts this season. VTDigger’s Emma Cotton has been looking into how it’s played out so far.

Emma Cotton: When people show up at ski resorts this year, they have had to quarantine for 14 days, or quarantine for seven days and then take a Covid test that is negative. And then when they arrive, they have to attest that they have done that.

Also different this year, mountains are operating at a reduced capacity. I think most of the managers of the mountains are advocating that people use their cars as their base lodges instead of going into the lodge. The lodges are operating at 50% capacity and a maximum of, I think, 75 people. And then you’re also required to wear masks at the mountain. So that’s a change definitely.

What’s not different for people? What looks the same as any other year?

Emma Cotton: People are still really excited to get out on the snow. And I think people are generally pretty happy to be there. The terrain is open, the lodges are operating. A lot of Vermonters I’m talking to, and a lot of out of staters, are saying they’re just really excited to get on the mountain after a pretty difficult year, I think, for a lot of people.

The quarantine requirements that you talked about are universal — anybody crossing the border into the state since November has to abide by those. And they’re swearing when they get to the mountain that they’ve abided by that. What do we know about how well that is working? Are people following these guidelines? Do we know if it’s had an impact on the amount of travel that’s coming in?

Emma Cotton: This is really all an honor system. Skiers have to attest that they’ve done these things. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they have. I did speak with a couple of people in Killington’s parking lot, for example, who said that they had not quarantined. It’s hard to tell how many people have quarantined and how many haven’t. It doesn’t seem like mountains can enforce that quarantine very well.

Some of the language on Killington’s website says, “No proof of completing a quarantine or receiving a negative test is required. But we urge you to do the right thing and not travel to Vermont and our resort if you don’t meet the requirements.”

So they’re definitely operating at a reduced capacity, and hotels are reporting that there aren’t as many people there as there are in a normal year, but it’s hard to tell who is actually complying and who isn’t.

I know you’ve talked to the resorts, you’ve talked to the Ski Areas Association, you’ve talked to the state commerce department. What’s at stake here for this industry?

Emma Cotton: Lindsay Kurrle, who is the secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, says that the industry will likely see a 40 to 70% decrease in revenue this year.

And that’s with all these measures in place.

Emma Cotton: That is with all these measures in place. The Vermont ski industry and the ski industry at large has been hurting for years. And that’s largely due to climate change, I would say — as temperatures warm, mountains have to create snow somehow, and that’s really expensive to do. And a lot of local mountains in Vermont have consolidated in recent years. There’s been a huge, huge consolidation. Vail has bought a lot of mountains. And that’s pretty widespread.

Typically, 4 million skiers come to the state in an average season, and those people usually spend $925 million in Vermont. Two thirds of that goes to the local economy.

By which you mean the towns around the ski resorts, small businesses in those areas, that sort of thing.

Emma Cotton: Exactly. Hotels and restaurants and that kind of thing. And then the state usually sees around $125 million in tax receipts from sales and room and meal tax. The industry also usually employs around 13,000 people in an average season. So the ski industry as a whole in Vermont is really important to the local economy to the state. I think a lot of locals would also say that’s maybe why they moved here. That’s why they wanted to come live in Vermont, is because they love skiing. And the industry is important to the culture as well.

So it seems like the stakes here are pretty high economically.

Emma Cotton: I think they are. The owner of Killington told me that it’s a “survival year” for him. And I think it’s it’s that way for many mountains.

You first started reporting on this back in November. It’s now January. What do we know about how things are working so far? What have the effects been?

Emma Cotton: I think there’s a lot of concern among locals. And not just about the virus spreading at resorts specifically, which is sort of what the state is pointing to at this point. But also about the virus spreading in the community. When out of staters come, if they haven’t quarantined, and if they’re visiting restaurants, visiting local establishments, going to the gas station even, they’re worried about how that might spread throughout the community.

It’s not necessarily skiing that they’re worried about. They’re worried about that kind of spread and the ripple effects of that. I know that businesses have shut down in response to Covid-19 spreading in ski communities. It’s hard to say exactly where that’s coming from. And some legislators in those communities have also pointed to gatherings there, where people haven’t worn masks. It’s really complicated to try to trace back whether it is out of staters that are bringing this in or not. But I think we’ve certainly heard from quite a few people who are really concerned about the safety and exposure that their community is facing.

One place where locals tend to look for clues about who’s coming in are resort parking lots. One skier we talked to said it’s a mixed bag.

Todd Wright: The lots feel like and look like they would in years past, when we weren’t in the midst of pandemic.

Todd Wright is the director of adventure sports for St. Michael’s College. His home mountain is Sugarbush. He said the resort has been great at enforcing Covid protocols — but he still sees a lot of out-of-state plates.

Todd Wright: So my anxiety is like, more out of state plates. But I also think we have to be thoughtful of: we don’t know the process those folks have gone through. We don’t know whether they are compliant or not compliant. I met a family at Sugarbush last week that have — they referred to it as their “pandemic house.” So they’ve been posted up in the Mad River Valley since April. But they still have out of state plates. So essentially, they’re part of our community.

I’m constantly doing the logical check of: I see a ton of out of state plates, there’s that initial uptick of, “what are these folks doing?” And then logically reminding myself that the vast majority of those folks are probably, or at least hopefully, doing the right thing. So I’m always balancing the anxiety of seeing those plates and knowing that there’s a ton of out of state tourism, with hoping that people are doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and are respectful of our state’s regulations as far as quarantining.

Todd said he’s OK with the fact that this comes down to personal responsibility — that enthusiastic skiers can help keep each other safe just by following the rules.

Todd Wright: I mean, this is a complex, multidimensional problem, but what we’re being asked to do is a really easy ask if you think about it. It’s really as easy as: mask up, don’t hang out with people from other households in person, wash your hands frequently, maintain six feet of distance, and be really thoughtful about your activities and the type of activities you engage in. So you can go skiing, but not do apres in the bar afterwards. Pretty easy ask in the context of a global pandemic. It’s really too easy. And the pushback against complying to really easy asks, I just find it a little astounding.

It sounds like from what you’ve said so far that from what you’ve seen this kind of honor system, personal responsibility vibe seems to be working so far.

Todd Wright: Yeah. I really feel like folks are doing what they’re supposed to be doing. And I just hope that folks from out of state are actually doing those things. That’s my big concern. The on-mountain experience, resort based alpine skiing, is a pretty safe activity. I’m not really concerned about the on-mountain stuff because it is a safe space. I’m really concerned about, like, I live in Underhill. And our Jericho Market is a really small market, it’s our community market. Everybody locally does their grocery shopping there. But during the winter, there’s a ton of people that — that’s the closest kind of robust market to Smuggler’s Notch. So there’s a lot of folks that go there.

Those are my concerns: Those folks, if they haven’t followed the rules, and they haven’t quarantined, they’re not just coming here to ski. They’re plugging into all these other aspects of our community. Even if they get injured — when emergency medical services turns up, that’s another way to plug into our community.

Can there be spread at the resort? Oh, definitely. But overall, the probability of that’s pretty low. But people just don’t come here and go to the resort — they get gas, they’re plugged into all these different aspects of our community. And I think that those risk factors, the ability for transmission increases, because those spaces are smaller, tighter, etc. They’re indoors versus outdoors. They become higher risk zones.

We reached out to the health department this week to hear what they have been able to track. So far they said there are cases linked to ski resorts, but nothing above average compared to other workplaces.

Tracy Dolan: The activity in the ski resorts is pretty consistent with the activity at any of the businesses or facilities that we see.

This is Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan.

Tracy Dolan: The cases at ski resorts are a mix of employees in a range of positions. It’s also some out of state students and international workers, because ski operations require a range of positions. The pattern is similar to what we would see in other businesses, whether it’s restaurants or residential schools or international workers at farms. So we’re getting that same kind of mix. And the case counts at ski areas are not significantly higher than case counts at other businesses where a lot of people are employed.

I asked Tracy about this question of the resort towns — when they see rising case numbers in their area, how should they respond?

Tracy Dolan: Well, I certainly empathize. I know that people are, of course, feeling really cautious. This is a serious pandemic, and the disease is very serious. And so I understand why people would be concerned about any chance of infection.

But I would like to let them know that we do have quarantine policies. And I understand that not everyone follows them — you know, we get that. However, we are monitoring carefully. And right now, it doesn’t appear that out of state visitors are a significant source of infection in Vermont.

Certainly there are some, and we know that through contact tracing, but we’re not seeing that the out of state visitors to ski resorts are driving significant numbers. This really still continues to be a homegrown situation. And a lot of the solutions still lie in our own hands. So encouraging people to wear masks, keep six feet apart, avoid social gatherings, the resorts have really done a pretty good job of trying to promote that, encourage that and enforce that.

Another related line of questioning that we’ve been getting from a lot of readers is that even if that’s what the data is showing us now, that there’s a lot of concern among people that when there is this sort of obvious violation of the quarantine policies around people coming in to ski, there’s a worry that that could be weakening people’s general perception of the rules. That they’re seeing people break the rules and saying, “Alright, well, why are the rest of us still abiding by these guidelines?” And I wonder what your response is to folks who have those types of frustrations? 

Tracy Dolan: I understand the frustration for sure. And overall, I think our policies have been effective. You know, Vermont has done well compared to the country. And so I think our policies have been relatively effective. But there are always going to be people who don’t follow them. We do everything we can in order to educate, and to promote and to mandate where we can.

I guess I would just say to people, I feel your pain. You know, when you’re concerned and frustrated, I have those frustrations myself. When I’m out and about, I don’t see a lot of violation. I have to admit, I primarily see people really following the rules. I dropped my daughter off at the ski area last week, and I do see things once in a while. But for the most part, taking the big picture view, I think most people are following guidelines. Most people are doing the right thing, and all we can do is encourage people to do the right thing.

Emma, from what we’ve seen so far, what does it seem like the rest of this season is going to be like?

Emma Cotton: That’s a really good question. Martin Luther King weekend is typically the busiest ski weekend of the entire season. So it’ll be interesting to see what this weekend looks like in terms of capacity resorts and lift lines. One of the things that has deterred a lot of people lately, too, is that there just isn’t that much snow. So it’ll depend on that as well.

But I think it does seem to me like tensions between locals and resorts are staying steady, if not maybe ramping up just a little bit. I think people are continuing to be really concerned, particularly as we hear news about cases of Covid-19 among employees at resorts and that kind of thing. I think tensions are definitely pretty high about this.’

Opening photo: Dover’s welcome sign on Route 100 this summer greeted visitors with a play on the “Got Milk?” marketing slogan. File photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger