Many mornings from his bed, Davey Pitcher wishes he’d rise to the end of the nightmare.
“You’d rather just wake up and have this all go away,” he said.
But COVID-19 does not appear to be going away here in Colorado and beyond anytime soon.
And so Pitcher, owner of Wolf Creek Ski Area, is learning to live with it. As are his counterparts across the state’s iconic slopes, over which legions of enthusiasts in the coming months will hope to glide, feeling the familiar wind in their face, leaving their troubles in the powder behind them.
If current plans stick, they’ll have their chance. But the sense of freedom central to the sport will be different.
That seems to be about the only certainty across Colorado’s more than two dozen ski areas — that things will be different.
“It’s a brave new world for all of us,” said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications for Aspen Snowmass.
All have made similar pledges: enforcement of face coverings and social distancing inside lodges and outside at lift lines, where only related parties will be allowed to board chairs and gondolas. All are said to be coordinating with local health officials. Many are claiming success from their summer operations — much smaller in scope than winter — and say they are taking cues also from hotels, restaurants and retailers.
But there might be more scrutiny for this industry, reportedly impacting the state economy to the tune of $5 billion every year.
It was in ski country — Pitkin County including Aspen and Eagle County including Vail — where Colorado saw its first “hot spots” for the virus in spring. In an unprecedented move in mid-March, Gov. Jared Polis ordered lifts to shut down.
Much has been learned since then, say representatives inside and outside the business.
“Colorado was the only state to successfully open resort skiing this past June, and we recognize the importance of skiing on our local economies and communities,” read a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment statement sent to The Gazette in response to an interview request.
The reference was to Arapahoe Basin Ski Area, which hosted a limited number of skiers and snowboarders through a reservation system for less than two weeks before closing in June. In an Aug. 15 blog, A-Basin CEO Alan Henceroth called the restrictions “disappointing” but called summer recreation on the mountain at “its highest ever.”
“Knowledge gained from the spring and summer” will go into winter plans, he said, adding: “We are deeply committed to offering skiing and riding with as few restrictions as are absolutely possible.”
Questions of capacity
COVID-19’s risk of transmission has been found to be lower in the outdoors, a finding Polis recognized in his current guidelines titled “Safer at Home and in the Vast, Great Outdoors.”
In a written statement to The Gazette, the governor, like CDPHE, recognized A-Basin’s opening in June.
“In this coming season,” he said, “I’m confident that once again Colorado resorts will lead the way in providing a safe skiing and boarding experience in our majestic world class mountains.”
CDPHE noted “unique risks” at ski resorts, “like ski lift lines, indoor restaurants and bathroom facilities, and indoor ski rental and retail stores.” The National Ski Areas Association has developed a set of best practices based, it said, on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization.
But in Colorado, leaders in resort communities went into September with lingering questions.
“People are anxious,” said Elisabeth Lawrence, commissioner in Summit County, home to four resorts. “They want ski areas to open because of the economy, but that needs to be done in a safe way.”
Off the mountain, there were “ancillary activities” to consider, she said: drinking at a bar and eating at a restaurant, for example. “That’s why it’s really important to think through what the life of a visitor is like,” Lawrence said.
That’s been part of conversations she’s had in recent calls with state officials and fellow county commissioners living at the base of ski slopes. Some have wondered: With winter eliminating outdoor dining, won’t more people be looking to go inside, where transmission risk is greater? Could ski areas play a role in limiting this influx?
“A big question we have is, will the ski areas have some sort of capacity limit or is the state going to set a capacity limit?” Lawrence said. “What are we comfortable with in terms of hosting people in each community?”
The answer wasn’t fully known by Vail Resorts’ announcement at the end of August.
Reservations will be required at the company’s 34 North American resorts, including Vail, Breckenridge, Keystone, Beaver Creek and Crested Butte in Colorado. Exact numbers were still being determined.
Late last week, Copper Mountain and Eldora, both owned by Powdr Corp., announced reservations for parking as their way to manage volume and said more details were to come.
When it comes to reservations and the ways in which resorts might control crowds, consistency doesn’t appear to be the goal.
“There’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for every resort or every state,” a National Ski Areas Association spokeswoman told Park City radio station KPCW.
Hints and more questions
Consistency was central to South America’s approach to its ski season.
In July, Powder Magazine reported on how national industries proposed plans to their governments. Chilean resorts offered to operate at 50% capacity and were waiting for clearance midway through that month. New Zealand, which has been praised globally for its handling of the pandemic, was enjoying a season close to normal, though without the usual international visitors.
In Australia, an outbreak in Victoria led to Vail Resorts closing the slopes of Hotham and Falls Creek. The country’s ski areas reportedly set out to limit capacity to 50% through pre-purchased tickets online.
Winter Park Resort has announced “a pre-booking method of purchasing (tickets) to limit lines and in-person contact.” Another multi-mountain destination — four compared to Winter Park’s two — Aspen has shied away from that idea, Hanle said.
“Every resort operation and every location is different,” he said. “Reservations is not where we would like to go, but we need to figure out how to manage load during peak periods.”
Wolf Creek is planning a first-year online sales system aimed at limiting guests. “It’s a commitment to the community,” Pitcher said. “To keep some of the stress off of local businesses and health care givers.”
No such system is expected at Monarch Mountain, another local favorite in southern Colorado similar in size to Wolf Creek. “The less restrictions you can put on people the better,” said that ski area’s owner, Bob Nicolls, echoing Henceroth at A-Basin.
Monarch is not like Vail resorts, Nicolls said — different, for one, in sheer numbers. Indeed, come winter when Vail and Beaver Creek open, Eagle County doubles in population, said commissioner Jeanne McQueeney.
That makes her wonder about how the virus would be tracked in the case of another spread, like the one seen in spring.
“Who’s going to do the contact tracing for people from outside of the state?” she asked. “And how are they going to communicate with local public health so we can then follow up locally?”
It’s another part of the puzzle to be solved, Lawrence agreed.
The recent chill in Summit County has brought sensations both old and new.
“In the fall, things get very exciting here. We’re ready for ski season as soon as Labor Day hits,” Lawrence said. “This year, there’s just so many unknowns.”
Unknowns for business, too, Pitcher said.
“Low-key” might be the way this season, he said. “And just do what we love to do, which is ski. And allow for this to hopefully run its course and then get back to trying to promote the mountain.”