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How to Stay Safe on the Slopes This Winter

Ski resorts adopt pandemic precautions, from face masks to outdoor dining

Skiers and snowboarders at the top of Copper Mountain at Copper Mountain in the Colorado Rockies

Steve Boice/Alamy Stock Photo

Skiing is a safe and socially distanced winter sport by nature — with lots of fresh, cold air and wide-open slopes. But with the new season soon to start, North American ski resort operators are taking pandemic precautions.

At many top spots, skiers will find protocols they face in other areas of daily life: face mask requirements, social distancing reminders, more stringent cleaning, touchless payment options, and limits on the numbers of visitors in the resorts, restaurants and other open areas. Hand sanitizing stations will be omnipresent throughout resorts, and many dining facilities that were formerly indoors will have moved outside into the open air, or have limited distanced seating inside. Some ski areas, including Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, will even have thermal imaging cameras in select locations to detect the presence of fevers among guests and staff (with a refund given in the event guests are sent home).

The National Ski Areas Association, the industry trade group, has released “Ski Well, Be Well,” best-practices guidelines that include much of the above.

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But with rules and recommendations in flux and differing from resort to resort, it's especially important to check with your destination regarding cancellation policies, advance reservation requirements and more before you make plans, advises Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director for Colorado Ski Country, which represents 22 ski areas across the state. “The biggest piece of advice we can give folks trying to figure out their plans for winter is to ‘know before you go,'” he says.

What skiers can expect this year:

Controls on ticket purchases

Prepurchased lift tickets. In normal years you might have arrived the day of your ski trip to buy a ticket at a resort's in-person ticket window, but that will not be an option at some slopes this season. Many resorts are requiring guests to prepurchase lift tickets — as well as lessons and rentals in some cases — to avoid in-person transactions. Among those doing away with walk-up ticket sales: Alterra Mountain Company, the parent company for 15 North American ski areas, including Station Mont Tremblant in Canada and Colorado's Steamboat Ski Resort and Deer Valley.

Vail Resorts, which runs 34 ski areas, including Telluride, Beaver Creek and Breckenridge in Colorado as well as Park City in Utah (the largest ski resort in the U.S.) and Vermont's Stowe Mountain Resort, has a new reservation system this year that applies at all of its resorts and prioritizes Epic Pass holders, giving them exclusive early-season access to the mountains through Dec. 7 (but requiring pass holders to make reservations for every day they plan to ski this year, another first). Advance-purchase lift tickets/reservations for non-Epic Pass holders will be available online starting Dec. 8.

Limited lift tickets. Some big resorts are eliminating single-day tickets altogether — especially during holiday and peak periods. That's the case at Steamboat, which isn't selling single-day or even multiday lift tickets this year; it's requiring that guests buy them as part of several different package offerings booked with Steamboat Central Reservations that include things like lodging and equipment rentals.

Limited parking. You can still buy same-day tickets on site at much-loved Colorado resorts such as Copper Mountain and Eldora this season: They're using mandatory parking reservations as a way to control crowds, so be sure to book those in advance of your visit.

Other pandemic-era precautions

Face masks. At most resort, guests will be required to cover their noses and mouths indoors and at some other traditional “pinch points” where crowds converge: lift lines and inside gondolas, shuttles and other enclosed spaces.

Spacing on lifts. The NSAA notes that “physical distancing in lift queues occurs organically due to the length of skis and snowboards.” It adds that the average chair lift ride is only seven minutes and in the open air, but adds that individuals or groups skiing together will be allowed to ride separately from others if they wish: “Lift attendants will not require guests to ride a chairlift with people they do not know.” Single riders on gondolas will likely be limited to two riders on opposite sides, with windows remaining open — even if it means icy breezes blowing in. Jackson Hole will be opening select lower mountain chairs earlier in the day than usual this season so some skiers can get a head start on social distancing.

Dining and more moving outdoors. In general, you can expect to see many things that usually take place indoors — from dining to gear pickups — moving to outdoor spaces, Linsmayer says. “Especially on the dining side, you're going to see a lot of outdoor yurts, tents, as well as things you might consider being inside moved outdoors, such as picking up your rentals.” Outdoor heaters and increased outdoor furniture will become the norm at base villages. And Linsmayer says reservations are likely to be required at many on-mountain restaurants this year, with indoor seating limited like never before.

Grab-and-go food. Resort representatives say they'll be offering more grab-and-go options for dining to make up for limited seating for lodge restaurants. Even luxury slopeside hotels such as Viceroy Snowmass in Colorado are offering “gold bag” lunches that put an upscale spin on eating to go for guests who want to avoid dining en masse.

More flexibility in cancellation policies. Season passes are being sold with fewer constraints. Epic Pass holders who are unable to reserve their preferred days, for example, can request a full refund of their pass after Nov. 4. And Alta Resort in Utah has instituted “peace-of-mind” purchasing for season ticket holders, offering a full refund with no questions asked until Dec. 31 on unused passes for the 2020-2021 season. Steamboat's packages, for instance, come with a “Worry-Free Vacation Policy” for a 100 percent refund or credit if the resort is closed due to COVID-19.

Limits on group ski lessons. Instructors and participants will be asked to maintain social distancing during lessons, and some resorts will require groups to be smaller. Breckenridge, for example, is limiting its groups to six students (children ages 5 and 6 will be in groups of no more than four; children ages 3 and 4 can only take private lessons). Steamboat Ski Resort is limiting group lessons to a maximum of five students per instructor. Expect to fill out health screening forms before lessons.

Health screenings for employees. This year, many resorts — including Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows in California — will institute daily health screenings for staff and, in some cases, as at Jackson Hole and Steamboat, even temperature checks. Employees will be required to stay home if they have fevers or are feeling sick, and guests are expected to do the same.

Tips for Skiers This Season

• Be sure to ask about the resort's cancellation policy in case COVID-19 disrupts your plans.

• Plan your ski vacation outside of peak periods such as the Christmas and New Year's holidays and the long weekends associated with Martin Luther King Day and Presidents Day. And try to visit midweek, when mountains are less crowded.

• Consider smaller, less-popular mountains that are harder to access from the airport and population centers of major cities.

• Use your car as a base of operations — for putting on ski boots, grabbing snacks — rather than getting yourself mountain-ready inside in the lodge. Northern Minnesota's Lutsen Mountains is among the ski areas encouraging its guests to do so.

• Stash a few extra face coverings in your daypack or ski pants pockets in case you leave one behind somewhere. They're certain to be available to purchase at resorts this year, but you can expect to pay for the convenience.

• While most transactions will be cashless at resorts this winter, keep some cash handy for traditional tipping scenarios with ski instructors and service people.

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