What Winter Will Look Like

Covid-19 has changed how ski areas will operate this winter. Here’s what you need to know before you go. By Stuart Winchester

Over the past few months, ski areas have broken their operations into a zillion Lego blocks and re-assembled them into something that looks nothing like what’s pictured in the instruction manual. The one given? This season  will look dramatically different from the lift-served ski world we walked away from in March. The experience at every resort will vary, but skiers can expect some version of these seven things when they click in for the 2020-21 ski season.The post-Covid ski world is evolving as fast as a Nor’easter over New England. Check with your destination before heading for the slopes, as their protocols may change from day to day.

1.State Regulations Are Changing

All through Covid-19, Vermont has maintained one of the lowest rates of infections and fewest deaths of any state in the nation. As of press-time in September, Vermont was reporting under 1800 cases since the beginning of the pandemic and fewer than 60 deaths. Dr. Anthony Fauci praised the Green Mountain state at a Sept. 15, Zoom press conference with Gov. Phil Scott, saying “Notwithstanding that you’re a small state, [Vermont] should be the model of how you get to such a low test positivity that you can actually start opening up the economy in a safe and prudent way.”

Though masks are still mandatory in public (including on the mountain and in ski lift lines) per a Governor’s executive order, Vermont has been opening up. As of mid-September, hotels and other lodging were able to take guests at 100-percent capacity. Restaurants were at 50 percent capacity and bar seating (with 6-foot distancing) was recently allowed. 

Vermont has also been mapping where visitors can arrive from. Visitors from counties with low Covid-19 counts (fewer than 400 active cases) are no longer required to quarantine or restrict travel and that now includes a potential 7.4 million people. Those coming from higher case counties were still being asked to either quarantine for 14 days before arriving or take a test and quarantine for 7 days following. And anyone staying at hotels or short-term rental properties is required to sign a Certificate of Compliance.

“We’re hoping that by ski season that will change, and things will relax even more,” said John Hammond, the new general manager at Sugarbush during an online forum in September put on by the Vermont Ski and Snowboard Museum (and sponsored by Sisler Builders and VT Ski + Ride).

But for ski areas, it is not easy to monitor if visitors comply. “Just because you see out-of-state plates, that doesn’t mean that’s not a second homeowner who’s been here all summer,” noted Hammond. Bill Cairns, president of Bromley concurred: “We have about 300 on-mountain condos and last spring when Covid-19 hit,  about 100 families never left.”

Still, resorts are taking compliance seriously. “We had a couple of instances where guests this past summer confessed that they were ‘just signing this’ [meaning the certificate of compliance] and hadn’t really quarantined,” said Bill Stritzler, the owner of Smuggler’s Notch Resort at that same forum. “In that instance, the staff called a supervisor and the guests may not have been allowed to stay.”

“While we don’t have a real way of enforcing this, we would hope that folks would be mindful and follow the slogan the National Ski and Snowboard Association has put out: “Don’t be the reason we end our season,” said Parker Riehle, the former head of Ski Vermont who moderated the forum.

2. Tickets May Be Limited, Reservations  May Be Required

For decades, skiing at some large Northeast ski areas – particularly on weekends – has resembled riding the New York City subway or Boston T: jam as many people in as you can, long after the point where it stops being fun.

That’s going to change. With state-mandated social distancing regulations limiting indoor capacity at everything from equipment rental sheds to cafeterias, ski areas are crafting an experience that more closely resembles the orderly, reservations-required seating of Amtrak’s New York-to-Boston Acela Express train than the jumbled disorder of the subway.

Bubble chairs at Mt. Snow. Couresy photo

In many cases, that’s going to mean reservations will be required to ski. In August, southern Vermont’s Magic Mountain, which has long capped sales of day tickets, became the first ski area in the region to announce a reservation system—one which will allow a season passholder to book days prior to the general public.

Vail Resorts, owner of the ultra-popular Epic Pass followed later that month, confirming that it would require reservations for skiers – including passholders – at Mount Snow, Okemo, Stowe and its 31 other  North American resorts. From Nov 6 through Nov 7, Epic passholders only will be able to reserve 7 “Priority” days for the season. After that, they can reserve an additional 7 days for a rotating total of 14 days. “You can add days as you use them up,” noted CEO Rob Katz in an online Q&A, “and you can book any number of week-of reservations as long as there’s capacity.” On top of that, only Epic Passes holders will be able to access its mountains prior to Dec. 8. “Most of the days, though, our capacity is at a level where we would not have to limit access,” noted Katz. He also acknowledged that Vail may consider removing the reservation system during the season.

While the requirement extends to all of Vail Resorts’ ski areas, including its three Vermont resorts and four in New Hampshire, it is not a one-size-fits-all system: the company will use a formula that considers acreage, lift capacity, historical visitation, and other factors to determine each mountain’s capacity and how many, if any, day tickets will be sold.

“It’s not like we picked a percentage of lift capacity and said that’s what it is,” said Vail Resorts Eastern Region Communications Manager Jamie Storrs. Each ski area will be able to ramp capacity up and down as they see fit, he added. The one sure way of guaranteeing a spot for you and your friends? Anyone in a private lesson won’t need a reservation. And they will get to cut lines.

Killington won’t require reservations for skiing and riding but will  for parking, including for season passholders, and it will limit day tickets and won’t be hosting tour groups, as it has in the past, on weekends. The online parking reservation system was still being worked out at press time. The advantage, however, may be that the resort will be able to gauge when people leave and open up more spots if, say, the slopes empty out in the afternoon.

At the same time, Killington announced opening day would be Nov. 14 and early skinning would not be allowed—a policy they plan to strictly enforce. For the die-hards who have welcomed what is often an October opening, this may come as a blow. The rationale: the stairway used to access the North Ridge trails that are usually the first to open is just too narrow to allow for social distancing.

The good news: Killington plans to turn some of the firepower it has used in the past for getting Superstar ready for the World Cup to getting top-to-bottom skiing off multiple lifts. “We’re confident that starting our season with more acreage and lifts open will help guests spread out and maintain an appropriate distance while also providing a higher quality on-snow experience from day one of the season,” wrote president Mike Solimano in an open-letter to the Killington community.

Most of the other Vermont ski areas, including Alterra-owned resorts Sugarbush and Stratton are not requiring passholder reservations (as of press time) but they are requiring day ticket holders to buy ahead of time and for specific days and, as Sugarbush’s Hammond noted: “We will be limiting lift ticket sales.”  Bulk packages of use-any-time day tickets,  such as Mad River Glen’s Mad Cards, Sugarbush’s Four-Pack and Stratton’s Flex Card are not happening this year, but the four-day Ikon Session pass will be honored.

Mad River Glen has different operating models depending on what level of threat Covid-19 presents, ranging from Level 1 (the worst) to Level 5 (the level Vermont is currently at.) “At Level 3-5 shareholders can buy up to a certain number of tickets every day at 15% off for anyone,” noted general manager Matt Lillard in a September Facebook broadcast. “But if we get to Level 1 or 2, the ski area will limit day tickets and limit how many tickets shareholders can buy.”

And most resorts will be asking that you buy lift tickets ahead of time, online. “We’re doing everything we can to avoid points of contact,” noted Bolton Valley Resort president Lindsay Deslauriers. The exceptions? At both Jay Peak and Burke, you can still walk up and buy a day ticket.

Will the reservation system work? “We had the opportunity to test a reservation system this summer at our many swimming pools,” said Smuggler’s Notch Resort owner Bill Stritzler. “But what we found is that many guests would make reservations and then be no-shows and then other guests would walk by and wonder why the pool was empty.” Smuggs ended up modifying the policy to allow folks in if a reservation was missed by 15 minutes. As of press time, the resort had not laid out specific plans for winter lift access.

And other resorts are modifying their schedules. Suicide Six joins Magic Mountain, Pico and Northeast Slopes in offering a limited ski week, opening just Wednesday through Sunday. Suicide Six is also offering $99 season passes to Vermont and New Hampshire grade-school students.

3. Ready to play Musical Chairlifts?

High-capacity lifts have proliferated across the Northeast in recent years, with new, faster-than-ever six-packs and gondolas shuttling ever-more skiers per hour up the mountains. These big lifts suddenly seem like liabilities as ski areas seek to create as much space as possible between strangers.

In some cases, ski areas have exacting criteria defining who is allowed to ride lifts together. Killington, for example, will restrict lift capacity to 50 percent, except for parties that are skiing together. Vail Resorts will only allow unrelated singles on opposite ends of a four-person lift or gondola  and will allow unrelated singles or doubles on opposite ends of a six-person lift or 8-person gondola.

Enclosed lifts present a special safety challenge, as evidence strengthens that Covid-19 spreads more easily indoors. What this means for bubble lifts such as the popular six-person Blue Bird Express on Mount Snow and Sunburst Express at Okemo is unclear, though Vail did confirm that the lifts will run. And while both mountains have redundant lifts running to their summits should the bubbles become unavailable, there is no such safeguard built around the main gondola at Stowe. The mountain has run the lift this summer, modifying its queue management, loading, and disinfection processes.

Jay Peak, which usually gets 50 percent of its business from Canada, is not mandating any spacing on most of its lifts but may do so on its enclosed tram.  And nearly all ski areas say they will not force any skier or rider to get on a chair or lift with someone they don’t know.

4. Your Car is Your Base Lodge

Lodges have long been the all-purpose boot-up-use-the-bathrooms-eat-nap-warm-up-après beating heart of the Northeast ski resort. In the Covid era, they’ve also become the most likely ski area vector for the disease’s spread, and ski areas are encouraging people to limit their trips indoors to essentials, such as bathroom pit stops.

Killington is explicitly banning boot bags from its lodges. In a Sept. 10 note Mike Solimano wrote  “plan to operate out of your car like it was a base lodge.”  And Stratton is forgoing its boot and bag check. Bolton Valley Resort will be asking people to spend no more than 15 minutes at a time in the base lodge and to make reservations for lunch. “We’re also looking at more outside seating,” said Bolton president, LindsayDeslauriers. “This is the season to buy an extra warm puffy.”

When it comes to food, nearly every ski area is pivoting to “grab-and-go” packaged options such as sandwiches and cookies.

Sugarbush’s John Hammond noted that since they will be limiting day tickets, the parking areas will be less crowded, and they would consider moving the food truck down closer to the parking lot.

Tailgating may be a season-long phenomenon. “Any limitations on the Chevrolet Chalets?” Riehle asked his panelists at the ski museum’s forum. “If we’re telling people to use their car as a base lodge, as long as they don’t burn down the nice car next to them, I don’t think we can say anything,” responded Bromley’s  Bill Cairns.

Capacity within lodges will in most cases be extremely limited. All 13 of Vail’s mountains across Pennsylvania, New York, and New England will have hosts manning the entrances of all of its lodges to limit capacity.

“We’re encouraging people to take lunch early or late this year,” said Storrs. “Showing up at 12:30 on a Saturday, there’s probably not going to be a table for you.”

5. Ski School Goes On; Daycare May Pause

Recognizing their importance both as revenue drivers and organizing foundations of family ski life, ski areas are going to great lengths to keep ski schools and race programs intact.

Vail Resorts’ ski areas, Bromley and several others will not run daycare programs at all, except for their employees.

Killington is shuttering its daycare altogether and suspending its Learn to Ski & Ride programs and its Ministars and youth group lessons. Sugarbush will be continuing to take its month-to-month regular daycare clients but not new kids.

At Smuggs, parents will be required to be part of any younger kids’ lessons so that they can pick them up from the snow, as needed, and for older kids, parents need to be within 10 minutes of the lesson.

6. Your Liftie May Be a Local

U.S. ski resorts have traditionally relied on thousands of southern hemisphere college students to help with winter operation, thanks to the J-1 work-travel visa. After President Trump suspended the J-1 program through the end of the year, resorts had to tap different labor pools to fill critical jobs.

“We had over 100 J1s last year,” noted Sugarbush’s Hammond. “But with college students taking gap years or doing remote learning, we’ve been able to fill many of the spots.”

Workers who rely on employee housing may not find the traditional communal experience of shared meals and movie nights. Vail will continue offering employee housing at Okemo and Stowe, but expects to have to modify capacity to meet local regulations. On the plus side, employee Epic Passes will be exempt from the reservation requirement.

All ski area employees will be required to wear masks and go through Covid screening each day before they report for work.

7. Your Pass May Be Refundable

For decades, ski season passes have been firm sorry-we-don’t-care-that-a-sinkhole-swallowed-your-property-and-a-hawk-ate-your-cat-there’s-no-refunds-allowed deals. Scattered ski areas or ski companies, including Vail and Alterra, would add an optional insurance upsell.

Covid shattered that model when it froze the ski industry in place in mid-March, yanking at least two months of skiing from a rabid Northeast skier base. For those who had purchased them, the add-on insurance policies proved to be useless.

When Alterra – which owns Vermont’s Stratton and Sugarbush resorts—reworked its Ikon Pass offering on April 14, doubling its renewal discount and extending its early-bird deadline, it held firm to its stance that, “all Ikon Pass … purchases paid-in-full are non-refundable.” The internet went ballistic. So rabid was the blowback that Alterra recanted just three days later, giving Ikon Pass holders until Dec. 10 to defer their 20/21 pass to the following season. They later added protection against in-season shutdowns. Other Northeast resorts followed, including Vail Resorts and Killington.

Approximately 60 ski areas in New England, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania now offer some form of season pass protection. Vail even eliminated the upcharge for its insurance, adding it to every Epic Pass automatically and expanding it to include “stay-at-home orders from county, state, country,” going well beyond the narrow Covid scope that many resorts ended up settling on.

Let’s hope you never have to use that insurance. n

Stuart Winchester is the editor of The Storm Skiing Journal podcast and enewsletter.  Additional reporting by Lisa Lynn.

Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.

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