After an abrupt end to the last ski season in March because of COVID-19 concerns, ski resorts are ready with new safety guidelines for what they say is the most uniquely challenging season yet.
In March, the fear of the spread of the coronavirus brought virtually every activity in the United States to a halt. Businesses, schools, and restaurants shut down. And despite an optimism that outdoor activities like snowboarding and skiing could continue, they, too, ceased operations. The decision among Oregon ski areas was made abruptly on March 15.
Since then, Oregon ski resorts have been working on new ways to curb the spread of coronavirus so they can safely reopen this winter.
“What we did immediately was to put together a task force,” said Mt. Hood Meadows Vice President Dave Tragethon. “Initially the task force was charged with learning everything we possibly could about the way that the virus is transmitted and those things that we should be putting in place to prevent that transmission.”
He said the priority is to make sure their visitors are following safety protocols, like wearing face coverings at all times, to protect the health of staff members.
“If our team starts catching the virus, that means that we’ll be put in a position of possibly not being able to operate and provide the experience for our guests,” he said.
Mt. Bachelor, Mt. Hood Meadows, Mt. Ashland and Timberline Lodge are all following the National Ski Areas Association COVID-19 guidelines that outline best practices for low-risk recreation while skiing. Those guidelines include wearing face coverings at all times, social distancing at least 6 feet apart and making sure staff increase cleaning and disinfecting in frequently touched areas. The association was able put these guidelines into practice in the Southern Hemisphere during the U.S. summer months, when places like Chile, Australia and New Zealand experience their winter.
The resorts are also relying on rule-compliance by their guests and staff to minimize COVID-19 exposure.
“Nobody one wants to be the reason why we have to end the season,” Tragethon said.
One of the biggest challenges resorts face is the need for space and social distancing at lifts.
Tragethon said the resort is managing visitor numbers, in part, by limiting ticket sales, especially during peak days, and also selling those tickets with certain start times.
“If someone purchases a ticket for Saturday, everyone doesn’t get there at nine o’clock. There’s only so many that start at nine. Then the next time starts at noon, then at two, then at five. By that way, we can actually spread out the arrival time of when people are coming,” he said.
Apart from following the National Ski Areas Association COVID-19 guidelines, ski resorts are also following Oregon Health Authority’s Outdoor Recreation Guidance. As coronavirus cases began to rise in September, and if diagnoses continue climbing into winter, there could be a possibility of ski areas closing back down.
The Oregon Health Authority’s Jonathan Modie said that, while ski resorts have unique aspects that are not entirely covered under the outdoor recreation guidance due to the vast amount of space their activities require, there are ongoing conversations about what additional guidance or recommendations might be needed prior to their winter seasons.
In Central Oregon, the Mt. Bachelor ski resort plans to reopen on Dec. 7 if enough snow has fallen and will be going into a “Back to Basics” approach.
“Our goal this year is to open safely and stay open for the entire length of our season. This means that everything we do must reflect a responsible approach to mitigating the risk of COVID-19 for our guests and staff. One of the primary ways we can do this is via physical distancing,” Mt. Bachelor President and General Manager John McLeod said in a letter sent to customers last month.
McLeod said skiers at Mt. Bachelor will be asked to use their vehicles when they’re not on the slopes, limiting lodge visits to restroom access and quick indoor warmups.
Timberline Lodge will have similar safety implementations as other ski resorts following their association’s guidelines.
The resort will also require visitors to register online and fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire prior to arriving so it can avoid reaching full capacity.