Ski resorts counting on a return to normal on the slopes

JAY, Vt. (AP) — After a winter with mask mandates and restrictions on the number of people on lifts, ski resorts are expecting the upcoming season to be more like the pre-pandemic days on the slopes.

Any virus-related protocols at resorts will vary depending on where they are and the local health rules in place. Some resorts are requiring masks indoors and at restaurants, others may continue to limit the number of skiers on the slopes for a better experience and some will require people to show proof of vaccination at certain venues.

“What’s new is a lot more optimism,” said J.J. Toland, a spokesperson for Jay Peak Resort in Vermont.

While many resorts did better than expected last season as people got outside during the pandemic, ski areas where public health restrictions were the strongest, like in Vermont, suffered a hit, said Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications director for the National Ski Areas Association. On top of that, the U.S.-Canadian border was closed so resorts like Jay Peak, which rely on those visitors from up north, lost business. Now they hope to make up for last season, but it doesn’t come without challenges.

The perennial difficulty of finding seasonal ski workers has been more pronounced during the pandemic. A survey found that about six of 10 ski areas indicated they couldn’t fill all of their positions for the last season, which was an increase from the 2019-2020 season, according to Isaac. Some resorts are offering sign-on bonuses and raising their starting wage to attract staff.

The National Ski Areas Association does not expect to see limited capacity on chairlifts, restrictions on who people can ride with, and far fewer, if any, mask requirements outdoors, said Adrienne Saia Isaac, marketing and communications director.

“I do think as far as the outdoor experience of ski areas, it’s going to look more like it has in seasons past,” she said.

Some resorts will look different with new offerings such as at Loon Mountain Resort in New Hampshire, which will debut its new high-speed eight-person chairlift with heated seats and a tinted bubble — the first one in the East — and Beaver Creek Resort in Colorado, which will have 250 new acres of terrain for beginner and intermediate skiers.

Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which owns 34 ski areas in the United States and Canada, including Stowe Mountain Resort in Vermont, Park City Mountain Resort in Utah, and Heavenly Ski Resort in California, has scrapped its online reservation system this season but is keeping some COVID-19 restrictions in place.

Face coverings will still be required indoors and on buses, but unlike last season, skiers and snowboarders will be able to breathe freely in lift lines, on chairlifts and in gondolas unless masks are required by local public health authorities. Reservations will be required to eat at many on-mountain restaurants, and guests will have to show proof of vaccination to dine indoors at the more crowded cafeteria-style, quick service restaurants.

Vail Resorts also has required all of its staff to be vaccinated for COVID-19 and to undergo daily health screenings.

“We’re really fortunate that the core of the ski and ride experience takes place outdoors,” company spokeswoman Jamie Alvarez said, noting that most of the lingering COVID-19 restrictions apply to indoor settings. “We’re hoping that this season will feel similar to what our guests have come to expect from a normal season.”

The Aspen Skiing Company, which includes Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass in Colorado, is requiring people to show proof of vaccination in certain venues such as in company-owned and operated hotels and full-service seated restaurants as well as for certain activities “where prolonged close contact while unmasked might occur.” Vaccinations are not required to access ski lifts.

At Arapahoe Basin ski area, near the Continental Divide west of Denver, all employees will be required to be vaccinated, but guests won’t experience any of the health restrictions that were put in place last season.

“We follow what the state requires of us and what Summit County Public Health requires of us, so we just stay in tune with them,” A-Basin spokesperson Katherine Fuller said. “If they change their guidelines, then we’ll change our guidelines.”

It will again cap the number of unrestricted season passes available and sell 10% fewer than it did last season, as well as cap the number of lift tickets it sells daily, Fuller said.

“Because of our COVID restricted numbers (last season), we realized that we could do well as a business and also make our guests happier by having fewer people on the mountain,” Fuller said. “Restricting crowds works really well. … We’re moving away from the standard operating procedure of getting as many people on the hill as you possibly can.”

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Peipert reported from Denver.

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