Nearly every Monday morning for the past few months, Boulder resident Leah Cousin and her 5-year-old son Levi wake up at 6 a.m., pile their boots, skis, and snow gear into their gray Subaru, and drive up Boulder Canyon to Eldora Ski Resort. Since Boulder Valley School District has asynchronous online classes each Monday, they’re able to arrive early (they’re usually one of the first cars in the lot), get in some runs, and then head home to complete Levi’s schoolwork that afternoon. Cousin—whose family has been taking the pandemic very seriously, visiting stores just for essential items and only seeing close friends occasionally, always in outdoor settings—has generally felt comfortable during her time on the slopes. “Since it’s cold outside, people are wearing their masks. And people are being reminded to wear their masks if they’re not,” she says. “I’ve felt like it’s a safe thing to do outside.”
And considering, so far, there has only been one significant outbreak tied to a ski resort this season—at Winter Park Resort, although there have been a number of smaller outbreaks—the data confirms Cousin’s gut-level feeling.
We’ve come a long way since March 5, 2020, when Colorado’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 surfaced in Summit County, driving all of us into our homes and forcing ski industry officials like Bill Rock, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Vail Resorts’ Rocky Mountain Region, to “make the hardest decision in my career” and shut down operations.
So what’s changed? In some ways a whole lot, but in others, very little. “Skiing has an inherent advantage compared to some other activities when it comes to the coronavirus,” says Chris Linsmayer, public affairs director at Colorado Ski Country USA. “We’re outside, which is a good thing, and most of the time when you’re interacting with other people, you have skis or a snowboard on, so you have some inherent, natural social distancing going on.”
There’s also the normalcy of wearing masks while skiing, and lifts and gondolas often have running times less than 15 minutes—outside the general time period for transmission, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Building on that positive foundation, ski resorts have taken other measures to protect their guests. “It came down to, let’s build some layers of precaution,” says Dan Hendershott, environmental health manager with the Summit County Health Department. “We know people aren’t going to follow every one of [the] protocols at all times, so we needed to build multiple layers.”
Those layers included requiring masks when a guest isn’t skiing (with a few exceptions, such as when actively eating or drinking), reworking lift lines to keep people more distanced, and installing more hand sanitizer stations. Many resorts have moved to online reservation systems to limit the number of guests, revised chair-loading policies to ensure unrelated parties have space between them, and bolstered their grab-and-go food options. Ski lodges have been required to operate in accordance with the state’s COVID-19 dial, which closes indoor dining entirely at level red and reduces capacity to just 25 percent at level orange. And throughout the 2020–21 ski season, resort employees have been required to fill out daily health screenings and to wear masks; many work in pods to limit interactions among colleagues.
These changes in protocol didn’t happen overnight. Most resorts had around nine months of preparation before the winter season began, during which time they reviewed case studies like Arapahoe Basin Ski & Snowboard Area’s brief reopening last spring, analyzed what worked over their summer operations, and consistently reviewed evolving recommendations from health authorities like the CDC and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
That’s not to say establishing or implementing the new protocols has been easy. Resorts have had to reiterate their COVID-19 policies not just among their employees and through on-site signage in lodges and lift lines, they’ve also had to include pandemic-related messaging in their marketing efforts and pre-arrival packages for guests. Kara Stoller, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber, points out that the ways communities have responded to the pandemic vary greatly across the country, so “we’ve continued to message to visitors what we expect of them when they come here.”
Throughout the holiday season, it was also necessary to set clear expectations for guests around what would and wouldn’t be open—and with level-red restrictions in place for most of December and January, the experience was much different than in a typical year. Though the ski resort and retail stores were open (with mask mandates), restaurants were largely take-out-only or open with minimal seating—and for good reason. After studying outbreaks at Idaho’s Sun Valley Resort and a collection of outbreaks in Europe that had “put the bullseye on the back of the ski industry,” health professionals like Hendershott determined the real source of the problem: “We saw it wasn’t really skiing, it was the après skiing, people packing in bars and partying, so we tried to learn from that experience,” he says.
Putting the kibosh on post-powder partying has been integral to stopping COVID’s spread, but it’s clearly changed the vibe around the sport and been detrimental to the local businesses that rely on that income surge. “Après alone is dead,” says Liz Rovira, communications manager at Aspen Skiing Company. “That’s a huge part of ski towns, a huge part of skiing, so to not have that afterward feels weird. And it’s tough for all of the restaurants and businesses in terms of revenue.”
Local businesses have also been in the tricky position of having to set boundaries for their employees outside the workplace, consistently reminding them that their actions off the job can have a direct impact on the job. That’s especially difficult for ski resorts, where it’s common for staff to live in communal housing. Despite efforts to close common areas, require masks in hallways, and instate no-guest policies, there are still the demographics of a typical person living in this type of housing arrangement to contend with, Hendershott points out. “That age group in their 20s and 30s is a leading driver of COVID cases, and when you put them in a temporary housing, seasonal job situation that’s often associated with having fun, ski bumming, and partying, an outbreak is a real concern.”
That’s exactly what went wrong for Winter Park. Through contact tracing, public health officials found the outbreak—now up to 129 cases, according to the February 17 CDPHE’s outbreak data report—was tied to social gatherings outside the workplace and shared housing. “Nobody wants to get sick and nobody wants to be responsible for the spread,” says Jen Miller, the resort’s public relations and communication manager, “But the way that people live their lives is a personal decision. We have precautions and restrictions in place at the workplace and in employee housing, but ultimately, we can’t dictate how individuals live their lives outside of the workplace.”
Thankfully, the spread did not extend to guests. And that’s likely because of all the measures put in place and the happy fact that guests, for the most part, have been following them. Now, with spring break around the corner, vaccines rolling out, and pandemic fatigue setting in, some ski officials worry that guests will get more relaxed, but Aspen’s Rovira is among those remaining optimistic. “We’ve gotten through Christmas and New Year’s, which is typically our highest visitation, and we’ve been successful through multiple holiday weekends,” she says. “I don’t think we’re going to do much differently from what we are right now. We’ll make sure all of our rules and protocols are in place, and we have employees out there helping with questions and making sure guests are following them.”
Cousin, for one, will be among those following the rules and loving the ability to take part in one of the few things that feels, to some extent, normal. “Skiing seems like one of the safest options we can do to create a sense of routine and normalcy for our family,” she says. “It’s a risk I’m willing to take.”