What It's Like to Go Skiing in the USA During COVID-19

Ski season is here – but it’s a little different this year. Tim Neville shares how ski areas are adjusting to keep the slopes open and visitors safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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A skier in a face covering and goggles skis down a slope in New Hampshire. Photo © Getty Images / Cavan Images

The day landed with all the excitement of a fat man sliding down the chimney. At last, the ski season in the United States had arrived, and in the midst of a punishing pandemic, it felt like a gift.

It was early December, opening day at Mount Bachelor, a 9,065-foot-high (2,763m) volcano near my home in Oregon and the sixth largest ski resort in the country. The crowd in the lift line crackled with a pent-up joy. Here at Bachelor, outside the mountain town of Bend, population 95,000, music pounded from speakers and the air smelled of spruce trees and dumplings. And somewhere, deep in the line, a guy in a yellow jacket wasn’t wearing a face covering.

“Sir!” a lift attendant in a blue uniform shouted, singling him out. “I need you to mask up!”

“Oh, right, sorry!” the man replied, sheepishly, and he tugged a neck gaiter up to his goggles, hiding his face.

Fewer services at ski resorts mean a return to basics

The ski season this year looks nothing like any ski season before, and yet, somehow, now several weeks in, it all seems to be working – mostly. With the United States still reeling from some of the highest COVID-19 counts in the world, ski areas from California’s Kirkwood to Pennsylvania’s Camelback have introduced a suite of changes designed to keep the masses skiing while reducing opportunities for the virus to spread. The result isn’t always pretty, but with snowstorms now rolling in, and the kinks mostly worked out, a day spent sliding down on snow is still as fun as ever.

“There really is hope,” says Adrienne Saia Isaac, Marketing Director for the National Ski Areas Association, which helped create steps ski areas can take to minimize the risks of an outbreak. “Being flexible is still key.”

Some of the changes in place now are ones we’ve already seen elsewhere. Nearly every ski area from coast to coast requires would-be schussers to cover their faces in lift lines and anytime you can’t maintain 6ft (2m) of distance with others. Indoor spaces such as restaurants and cafeterias have closed their doors, limited capacity, or allow carry-out orders only. Sadly, the après scene has all but vanished.

Maybe that’s not so terrible, though.

The lack of (typically overpriced, under-delivered) services has led to a resurgence of that age-old skier proclivity for partying in the parking lot, or at least, heading back to the car to fire up a barbecue, drink homemade hot chocolate from a thermos, and gather with friends in a safely spaced circle. At Bachelor, I found countless groups had brought propane-powered fire pits, camp chairs, and even games to play while resting their legs. I always pack an extra down jacket or other warm layer, along with a spare hat and gloves, to make sure I stay warm with all that standing around.

Two men enjoy a tailgate picnic in the parking lot of the Mount Bachelor ski area.
Tailgate picnics in the parking lot are a thing again. Photo credit: Tim Neville

With indoor seating now drastically reduced, if open at all, the $16 slice of mediocre, lamp-warmed cafeteria pizza may be no more, but who’s complaining when good-quality food trucks have popped up at hundreds of ski areas to serve things such as Chinese steamed buns and burritos the size of hockey skates. One of the coolest culinary innovations rumbles around Colorado’s Steamboat resort: a mobile taco truck with tank-like treads for grip on the snow.

New COVID-19 rules for skiing: reservations and socially distanced chairlifts

While being outside in the mountains feels like a good way to avoid COVID-19, what with all the fresh air and people covered head to toe, it’s everything else that goes with skiing – namely, crowds – that could cause concern. There are risks of infection anytime people are gathering with others outside their immediate household. But to minimize some of those issues, most ski lift lines now have empty lanes between the queues to keep some distance between those waiting in other lines. Groups that arrive together may ski together, while single-riders can either choose to ride solo or with one other person (with an empty seat between them). When riding with strangers, I’ve found Americans are still willing to chat as long as you keep your face covered.

Other changes are quite stark, as ski resorts try to limit the number of people who come to their mountains in the first place. Instead of just waking up and heading off to the hill, many ski areas – including all of those run by Vail – require advanced reservations. Simply put, it means you have to buy your lift ticket in advance and some days tickets may sell out. Other places, like my home hill, don’t require a reservation for the lifts but do require one to park a car. In a strange but welcome twist, this has actually led to me skiing more, not less. The weather may be pitiful, but who cares when you’ve scored a highly coveted parking pass.

Spaced apart for social distancing, skiers ride the chairlift at Mount Bachelor ski resort.
Socially distanced skiers on a chairlift at Mount Bachelor. Photo credit: Tim Neville

Ski holidays in Europe and Canada

At the time of writing (December 2020), traveling overseas to take a ski holiday isn’t happening for many people, with many countries closing their borders to British and South African travelers and many in the Schengen area barring travelers from the United States. Switzerland is currently allowing some travelers in, without quarantine, including those from Australia, India, and Canada, while Canada has barred arrivals for most foreign, leisure travelers, and those who are allowed in must have a “quarantine plan” that shows where they’ll stay for two weeks and how they’ll get groceries.

How the 2020-2021 ski season is shaping up

Opening day at Bachelor proved to be one of the best opening days ever, with loads of snow, manageable lines, and a vibrant parking lot scene as people grilled meats and ate soups they’d brought from home. Friends from around the country reported similar opening days at their resorts, though the reservation systems have annoyed many of them.

There were some hiccups, of course. A guy got in a fight in a line at Vail for not wearing a mask when told to, and a teenager who couldn’t get parking at Bachelor decided to ride inside the roof-top gearbox of a friend when the friend’s car was already full. He got lucky and did not die.

Meanwhile, more storms are lining up, the days are getting longer, and the vaccines are rolling out. Before long, we may all be skiing like we used to. When that happens, you’ll find me cruising the net looking for cheap flights to Zurich.

Until then, I’ll take whatever gifts the ski season might bring.

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