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How Ski Resorts Hope to Operate Under COVID-19 This Winter

Signs are posted as skiers wait for the lifts to start at the reopening of Arapahoe Basin Ski Resort on May 27. Photo: David Zalubowski/AP/Shutterstock

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It’s only July, but in a normal year this would already be past time for avid skiers and snowboarders to have bought their passes for the upcoming season. In recent years, ski-resort operators have significantly reduced the prices for season passes, especially for those who buy them immediately after the end of the prior season. The offer of a sharply discounted price to the most loyal and most organized skiers has made it feasible for ski resorts to sharply increase prices for single-day passes bought at a ticket window without alienating core customers. Advance pass sales also nudge customers to commit to their plans to take ski trips, and they mitigate ski companies’ weather risk by locking in customers before anybody knows whether the season will have excellent snow or not.

But this winter, snow will not be the biggest source of uncertainty for skiers and ski operators. Customers don’t know what the status of the coronavirus pandemic will be by the winter, and what sorts of ski (and après-ski) activities will be available and advisable. They don’t know how comfortable they will be about getting on airplanes to take ski vacations. They may also be uncertain about their own personal financial outlooks, and whether they will want to spend money on ski trips. So ski-resort operators have had to adapt their season-pass sale pitches to reassure customers that they’re not going to waste money on a pass they won’t use.

Vail Resorts, which owns mountains including Vail, Breckenridge, and Whistler-Blackcomb and is the largest ski resort operator in North America, has extended until Labor Day the usual spring cutoff for the most discounted price on its multi-resort pass product, the “Epic Pass.” Vail’s main competitor, Alterra Mountain Company, which owns resorts including Steamboat, Stratton, and Mammoth, kept a spring deadline for the lowest price on its own product, the Ikon Pass, but is offering purchasers what it calls “adventure assurance”: If they decide they don’t want to ski in the upcoming season, they can convert their unused 2020/21 season passes at any time into passes for the 2021/22 season. Both companies also promise refunds, pro-rated based on complex formulas, in the event that resorts must close for part or all of next winter due to COVID-19.

“In this moment, with all that is going on in the world, we feel Labor Day is a much better time to have a conversation with our pass holders about next season,” said Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz on an earnings call with investors at the end of April. Vail sold 1.2 million Epic Passes for last season, but Katz declined to say how many passes had been sold so far for the upcoming season, noting that the price increase deadlines are a primary motivator for customers to buy passes and that he was unsurprised that, with the deadline delayed, customers were delaying their purchases.

Alterra CEO Rusty Gregory, for his part, told me Ikon Pass sales were “shockingly strong” in the lead-up to his company’s June 16 deadline to buy at the lowest price. Until that date, the full-featured season pass was available for $999. The company has motivated sales by increasing its discount for renewing customers, who were offered the full pass for just $899, and it has softened the blow for those who didn’t feel ready to buy in May — this year, buying a little later will only cost you an extra $50.

Alterra has continued its practice of not disclosing the number of pass sales, so I don’t know exactly what “shockingly strong” means, but we have seen surprisingly strong demand in some other areas of the consumer economy, like auto and RV sales, as household balance sheets have held up remarkably well in the crisis and consumers have been showing a willingness to spend on products and services that are available. Gregory also says summer resort operations like mountain biking and scenic lift rides, which mostly cater to local customers, have drawn robust business as people look for ways to spend time outdoors.

Of course, the big question ski-pass buyers have is, will I be able to use this thing when there is snow? Summer operations, with lighter crowds and pleasant weather conducive to dining outdoors, are less logistically challenging during a pandemic than winter operations, which were cut off early this past season as part of broader coronavirus shutdown measures. (Vail offered partial refunds to last year’s pass-holders based on how much skiing they missed out on.) While skiing inherently involves face covering and social distancing and is itself a low-risk activity for COVID-19 transmission, a lot of things people do related to skiing pose significant risks. Skiers have lunch in busy cafeterias. At night, they drink in bars and gather in crowded restaurants. They ride together in buses to get around ski towns. And some ski-related jobs, particularly in food service, entail putting workers together in close quarters indoors.

I asked Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, and middling skier, what aspects of the ski experience he thought could and could not be made coronavirus-safe.

“Lowest risk is coming down the mountain,” he said. “Even if you bump into somebody, crash into someone, it’s fine.” (At least from a COVID-19 perspective, if not an orthopedic one.)

How about riding a chairlift?

“It’s probably fine — you share someone’s space for five minutes, but it’s outside, it’s usually windy, I think you can probably get away with it,” he said. “If you want to put family members together, or have people go up by themselves, that’s probably marginally safer but I don’t think it’s a huge deal.”

What about a gondola, where as many as eight skiers share a small, enclosed box as they ride up the mountain?

“You probably want to open them up a little bit and ventilate them, have some amount of fresh air going in, and get people to wear face masks, and that might be okay. But that starts getting a little bit riskier, if it’s a long gondola ride.”

So the skiing part of skiing sounds like it should be manageable, especially at mountains that don’t rely heavily on gondolas to transport skiers. But where Jha sees much more difficulty relates to the lodges and restaurants and cafeterias where skiers dine and warm up in between cold runs.

“That’s incredibly high risk, if you have an indoor space with lots of people,” he said. While face masks help indoors, a lot of what people do indoors on ski mountains is eat and drink, for which they will necessarily take their face coverings off. And at least under normal conditions, on-mountain lodges are often crowded and convivial spaces. Even in non-pandemic conditions, skiers usually wear face coverings for warmth; one of the pleasures of stepping inside the lodge is normally that you get to take your sweaty balaclava off, have a drink, and chat with others.

Ski resorts and towns were significant hubs for transmission of COVID-19 this past winter, especially in Europe. Austrian researchers found a 42 percent prevalence rate of coronavirus antibodies among residents of the Tyrolean ski town of Ischgl, among the highest observed anywhere in the world. Vacationing skiers engaged in all sorts of virus-spreading activities in Ischgl’s bars and restaurants in February and early March — in at least one case, playing a fucked-up variant of beer pong where you spit ping-pong balls from your mouth, according to CNN — and then took the virus home with them to places all over Europe. Nothing quite so dramatic happened in the U.S., though Colorado’s earliest COVID-19 hot spots were not in Denver but in high-end ski communities like Aspen and Vail. The fact that people travel from all over the world to these ski resorts made them places that COVID-19 was likely to show up and also to radiate out from.

Gregory, the Alterra CEO, notes the company has a 111-slide (and growing) guide to best practices for coronavirus suppression, with masks and social distancing as cornerstones. They have implemented disinfection protocols and installed plexiglass dividers similar to what you now see in many retail stores. They are building large, tented dining spaces in parking lots in order to be able to space dining tables farther apart than usual. But much of the plan for how to run a ski resort this winter is to-be-determined, depending on the prevailing virus conditions and the emerging research about what causes and prevents transmission.

“We’re not sure yet,” he told me, when I asked whether it would be feasible to load eight unrelated passengers onto an eight-passenger gondola this winter. He did suggest the resorts would require masks in places where social distancing is not possible, such as gondolas. When I noted the enforcement challenges this would pose — there’s no attendant in the gondola cab to make sure passengers keep their faces covered — he pointed out that ski resorts already have experience enforcing safety rules, such as about reckless skiing, and that the company would remove non-compliant customers from the mountain as necessary.

The ongoing experience in Australia, which is currently in the midst of its ski season, presents some reasons to hold cautious expectations about the North American season. The Australian reports that resorts in New South Wales are operating at 50 percent capacity with social distancing requirements in effect and strong demand from customers. But across the border in Victoria, resorts closed less than a week after the season started, because Victoria’s capital of Melbourne re-entered a coronavirus lockdown and the interstate border was closed, making it impossible for customers to visit from Sydney. (A local realtor told the Australian that real estate sales at Victoria ski resorts were strong despite the border closure, as wealthy Melbournians seek a place to get away from the city.) Given the poor state of virus suppression across the U.S. compared to other countries, it’s likely that ski areas will be impacted by significant COVID-19 outbreaks in the cities their customers come from, which could make operation untenable.

All that said, to the extent resorts are open, it is possible to conceive of what a responsible ski trip during COVID-19 would look like: going to a resort that doesn’t require a trip on an airplane. Driving to the mountain in your own car, or staying walking distance from the lifts. Riding chairlifts together with a small, consistent group, such as your family. Keeping your face covered with your neck warmer or balaclava when in close contact with people outside your party. Eating outdoors, or at your own condo. In fact, quite a lot of people’s ski trips were already more or less like this before the pandemic — not everybody is looking to play mouth beer pong on their ski vacations — and since ski resorts will likely need to operate at significantly reduced capacity in order to maintain social distancing, it’s for the best that resorts primarily be serving people who live within driving distance.

Jha told me he is skeptical that the necessary indoor aspects of the ski experience can be made safe enough for a responsible season with our current capabilities — that letting people gather inside lodges, even with more space between tables, will simply pose excessive risk of causing major outbreaks. But he has some hope that may no longer be the case by winter. In particular, he thinks it is possible that much cheaper, faster, and more widespread testing may be available such that resorts could require customers to take daily COVID-19 tests before skiing, a practice that would identify most carriers and keep them off the mountain. He also said it is possible, under the most aggressive timelines, that one or more vaccines could be not only approved but widely distributed in time for the tail end of the ski season. But he thinks we are more likely to reach that milestone around summer of 2021.

Personally, I’ve bought my Ikon Pass for next season, in the hope that I will at least be able to take some ski trips within driving distance of New York. I’ll probably bring a sack lunch to eat outdoors. But I’m also prepared for the possibility that I’ll be taking Alterra up on their “adventure assurance” promise, and postponing my skiing to the 2021/22 season.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Alterra’s refund policy for 2019-20 season passes and misstated Alterra’s deadline for lowest-price purchases of passes for the 2020-21 season. It also misstated the locations of Colorado’s earliest COVID hot spots, which included Aspen and Vail, but not Telluride.