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How coronavirus will change skiing this season

Posted at 12:58 PM, Nov 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-03 16:10:05-05

Jenny Leveille is still planning to "chase the powder" this year. In spite of numerous COVID-19 related restrictions at ski resorts around the world, the most avid skiers and riders like Leveille might be able to scale the coronavirus obstacles.

But passion for the sport by itself won't be enough to power you through the season.

A successful 2020-21 ski season demands a flexible travel schedule, Type A-planning sensibilities and the financial means to do it all.

The car as the 'lodge'

Accustomed to doing everything in her van -- yes, including going to the bathroom -- the 30-year-oldLeveille says she doesn't rely on ski resorts' indoor facilities. In fact, she barely uses them at all.

That'll suit some resorts just fine. A news release from Ski California, which represents resorts across California and in Nevada, said that food and beverage offerings will be available this year, but they won't look like years past, thanks to reduced indoor capacities.

As such, the release reads: "Many resorts will encourage outdoor dining, offer 'grab and go' options, and recommend use of personal vehicles as the 'lodge' this year."

Chris Linsmayer with Colorado Ski says some resorts in Colorado "are encouraging using the car as a home base." He says it's potentially a good place to eat lunch.

But what if you don't have a car?

Many travelers fly to the ski resort of their choice or as close to it as possible and then rely on shuttle services or shared ride services to take them around town, to the mountain and back to their accommodations.

This year, shuttle service offerings will be reduced or suspended altogether, leaving visitors with hard choices and maybe the added expense of renting a car.

But for those who are able to drive to the mountain, there remains a question of access.

At East Coast resorts (much smaller than their Western counterparts) such as Stowe and Killington, both in Vermont, the walk from the car to the lodge and then back again can be long and awkward. Ski boots were not made for walking.

Avid skier Tim Pham is founder of, a San Francisco Bay Area based snow-sports club for busy professionals. He considers the "car-as-lodge" plan especially problematic for families.

"It's a hassle to get kids in and out of skis, boots and clothing to get into the car and then get out on the slopes after the break," Pham says.

But not all ski towns allow motor vehicles. Zermatt (Switzerland), Oberlech (Austria) and Valmorel (France) are all car-free.

Zermatt isn't, therefore, in a position to suggest visitors eat lunch in their cars, but the Swiss mountain village will be implementing Covid-19 dining restrictions. Only four people are allowed at a table, and diners must be spaced about five feet apart from one another.

Flexibility is key

Along with the requisite mandatory face mask requirement and social distancing protocols, some resorts are pushing for midweek visitation.

Linsmayer says Colorado ski areas are encouraging guests to visit midweek or at nonpeak times. "We absolutely realize this may not be possible for folks, but if you can, that is the best time to visit a ski area this winter."

"There will be no difficulty getting on the mountain during the week, and we do not anticipate overcrowding on the weekend, as we have made the decision to cancel all our events for the season," explains Leif Williams, vice president of marketing for Hoodoo Ski Area in Oregon.

Of course, a midweek mountain excursion outside the holidays is not possible for everyone.

Leveille's flexible work schedule coupled with her unique living situation -- she lives in her van with her dog -- means she can lace up and snowboard during the week, first thing in the morning. She can skip weekends and larger crowds altogether and still rack up days on the mountain.

"When you can ski any day, you don't like lift lines," Leveille says.

Pham, on the other hand, who had the Mountain Collective Pass last year, will not be purchasing a pass this year. While he says he's OK with the reservation system required across many of the California and Colorado resorts he planned to check out, ultimately, he's not satisfied with the protocols in place at the varying resorts. He says they feel like a reflection of the "piecemeal strategy throughout the country" with states and cities managing the pandemic differently.

Ticket to ride

Planning will be de rigueur at ski resorts around the world this season. While many of the resorts included in theIkon system will not require reservations, all of Epic's 34 North American resorts will.

Reservation or no reservation, passholders will have priority access. Some resorts are doing away with walk-up window sales, putting a hard stop to skiers and riders who wake up to several feet of fresh snow and see an opportunity.

With mountains limiting their capacity, securing a spot ahead of time is bound to be crucial.

Deer Valley Resort in Utah will be circumventing overcrowding this season by "prioritizing access for season passholders and will tightly regulate the number of daily lift tickets that will be available by advance purchase only."

"We highly recommend purchasing one of our pass products ahead of the season to ensure you get the best value and the best access to our resorts this season," Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz wrote in a letter to guests.

At Lutsen Mountains in northern Minnesota, daily capacity allowances will result in a number of sold-out days. Furthermore, "Online reservations are strongly recommended and will be necessary for ensuring your space on the mountain for select dates," reads Covid-related information on the website.

Accordingly, peak season, the week before Christmas and New Year's, won't be quite as peak, but it may be more coveted than ever. In the US, long holiday weekends also tend to be equated with crowded slopes.

A spokesperson for Ikon says travelers should book holiday travel now.

"If snow enthusiasts are planning to go skiing for the holidays, I'd strongly encourage them to book their trip now."

"Based on the destination they select, they should consult the measures announced by the resort (priority access to passholders vs. reservation system, etc.) and closely monitor the situation in that state."

Aspen, a favorite upscale ski destination among Europeans and US residents, won't be able to welcome international visitors anytime soon, but travel restrictions haven't made the area's holiday pricing any less competitive.

A stay at the four-star Limelight Hotel over Christmas and New Year's costs over $1,000 a night; a five-star accommodation at The Little Nell has rates listed at more than double that. Meanwhile, The St. Regis Aspen Resort appears to be sold out during peak holiday season.

Planning for the worst

Across the board, ski resorts have been ironing out plans for worst-case scenarios.

The 2019-20 season was cut short abruptly amid the pandemic, leaving passholders bereft and at a financial disadvantage. For many passholders, the purchase only makes sense if you can bank enough days on the mountain; losing months in a season was costly.

Skiers with trips planned in mid-March and beyond this year found themselves scrambling for some kind of recourse. How successful their efforts were varied by pass and by individual resort in some cases.

Epic Passholders were eligible for a credit percentage based on how many — or how few — days they were able to use the pass.

Ikon, meanwhile, proffered a discount off the upcoming 2020-21 season and nothing for passholders who saw their season come to a sudden end.

As the pandemic rages on with recent spikes across Europe and no signs of the spread slowing down stateside, resorts are addressing potential closures and lockdowns proactively.

Dolomiti Superski, which offers a pass for its 12 ski areas in Italy, has taken great pains to address potential shutdowns.

Likewise,Maine passholders this season qualify for the Worry-Free Winter Assurance program, which guarantees 150 days of skiing at Sunday River and Sugarloaf, collectively, as well as the option to roll over the value of their purchased 2020-21 season pass towards a pass for 2021-22 if requested before December 10, 2020.

The transparency around refunds and credits may put a few wary skiers at ease, yet plans-of-action for potential Covid-related closures falls short of addressing concerns like Pham's.

He's disappointed in the lack of a united approach and says he is worried resorts in his neck of the woods aren't taking enough precautions. Pham believes skiing in and of itself is low risk because it's outside, but he continues to express concern over exposure in enclosed areas, including gondolas, hotels and lodges.

Hoping for the best

Big Sky Resort in Montana says it's confident the current plan will allow it to have a full season of skiing. It's also counting on guests to conduct themselves according to Covid-19 protocols.

Across the board, the two non-negotiable requirements are now-familiar concepts: Face coverings must be worn at all times, except when actively going down the mountain and actively eating, and social distancing guidelines must be followed — on lift lines, in dining areas, waits for restrooms and more.

Ski lifts will not be filled to capacity as in years past; rather, families or friends traveling together will be seated together. Singles will ride alone or spread out in larger chairlifts and gondolas, such as on the one at Whistler-Blackcomb.

"With regards to lift transport, we are fortunate in that virtually all of our ski lifts are either gondolas for 10 persons max, chairlifts or drag lifts. This makes it much easier for social distancing because groups and families can remain in their own bubbles," explains Chamonix Press Officer Claire Burnet. She did not respond to questions about single skiers, who historically have had the advantage of taking a spot on a ski lift or gondola with a nearly complete party for the sake of expediency.

It remains to be seen how new lift protocols will impact the solo traveler, but lines may be longer.

On the other hand, the looming uncertainty around Covid-19 and questions around air travel's safety might ultimately mean battling crowds is a moot point.

Some skiers, including parents in Pham's ski group, have decided to skip this season, thanks to the added layer of hassle.

Leveille, however, isn't bothered by the protocols, many of which won't apply to her snowboarding lifestyle anyway. She made it through the winter last year, her first living out of her van and admits her focus "was snowboarding and getting in as many days as I could in as many locations as possible." She managed to clock in at 29 days when the pandemic extinguished the season.

Leveille, who holds an Ikon pass this year, says she hopes to log 50 days on the mountain.

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