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The City Journals

How ski resorts are handling COVID-19

Jan 11, 2021 10:44AM ● By Tavia Dutson

Skiers ride the chair lift on Opening Day at Solitude after months away. (Photo Credit Eric Schramm and Solitude Mountain Resort)

By Tavia Dutson | [email protected]

As Utahns enter a new season during the COVID-19 pandemic, they can turn to the mountains for a safe place to recreate. Although resorts up Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons were forced to close early during the spring of the 2019-20 season, they have been working tirelessly to provide locals with a safe 2020-21 season.

Ski resorts started planning for this season as soon as they shut down in mid-March but have had to adjust those plans as the COVID-19 pandemic progressed. As the rest of the state adjusted to each new mandate as it came, resorts were charged with predicting how current protocols would affect a season that was still months away.

“We had to wait for so many pieces to fall into place, and there were so many things that we just couldn’t see from that far out. The conversation has been ongoing throughout the year,” said Sara Huey, communications manager for Solitude Mountain Resort.

Utah resorts were tasked with altering their operations to fit this unprecedented season, but they were not without help. Many Utah resorts have ties to ski resorts all over the world. By looking to resorts in Australia and South America, they were able to see how resorts in the Southern hemisphere dealt with their winter season. The southern hemisphere gets the majority of their snowfall from June to December. 

“We looked to see what they were doing, what worked for them, what didn’t work,” said Andria Huskinson, communications manager for Alta Ski Resort.

These foreign ties have been helpful in winter planning, but the camaraderie among the resorts in the Cottonwood canyons is what will keep the resorts open with the ever-changing nature of this season. 

“Utah is such a unique environment for operating a ski resort because we really do all have each other’s backs,” Huey said. “We work together really closely when it comes to the nitty gritty of day-to-day operations and sharing insight on what’s working, new ideas, and things like that.”

Although there will likely be changes in state mandates and protocols throughout the winter, ski resorts have proven to be flexible. Resorts with summer operations have already been adjusting throughout the summer while allowing guests.

Changes to expect 

In accordance with state laws, all four ski resorts in the Cottonwoods (Alta, Brighton, Solitude and Snowbird) will be requiring face coverings inside restaurants and lodges and outside when a distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained. Although neck gaiters are allowed, skiers are encouraged to fold their gaiters or double up to ensure safety. 

Physical distancing will be maintained at resorts in high traffic areas. To keep social distancing in lift lines, Alta Ski Resort has coined a new term.

“In our lift lanes we have what we call ghost lanes. There will be a line for skiers separated by an empty line,” Huskinson said. “And naturally your skis in front and back keep you separated.” 

Many resorts have used the pandemic to update their technology. Upgrades that have been passed over due to budget restraints are suddenly in high demand. Snowbird has added a new app that helps determine wait times on ski lifts and Solitude has added touchless pay for parking.

“We are often limited by budget, which we balance with need. The pandemic shifted that balance and suddenly we anticipated a demand among our guests. In order to mitigate transmission, we needed to prioritize these changes,” Huey said.

Resorts are combining these new technologies with data they have collected through the years. Solitude looked to statistics to determine how to keep their resort at capacity. Solitude has ended same day lift ticket sales so that they can use their estimates to stay under capacity. The pandemic has demanded these changes, but many of the initiatives will have long-lasting positive effects.

“Ultimately, I think our efforts to address the pinch points through arrival where people are necessarily concentrated will contribute to a more streamlined experience even years down the road,” Huey said.

Although restaurants on the slopes are only operating at half capacity, guests still have many of the same options. Alta Ski Resort has even added two more grab and go food trucks in each of their parking lots to spread out guests while still offering an array of options. Restaurants will be unavailable as “warming spots” this winter and resorts are encouraging skiers to use their cars to warm up and take a break during the day.

As far as travel to and from resorts, the Utah Department of Transportation will be working closely with the resorts and the Unified Police Department to keep roadways safe as they have in years past. For information on road conditions, visit udot.utah.gov.

What looks the same

In these unprecedented times, skiers can rest easy knowing their favorite resorts will look largely the same. Resorts are committed to providing the same top-tier experience that Utah skiing is known for. The nature of skiing as a physically distanced sport has allowed ski resorts to make small modifications to their operations that ultimately keep people doing what they love.

“Passholders should expect an experience that is pretty familiar to them. They should be able to arrive, park and head to the lift as usual,” Huey said.

Many resorts are still offering lessons to those looking to learn a new skill. Alta Ski Resort is only allowing private lessons, but they will look very similar to past years. Solitude is offering group lessons to ages 7+ and have only omitted the lunchtime gathering to limit time spent inside.

Something that will always stay the same is the terrain. The Cottonwood canyons have near limitless space for skiers and snowboarders to explore. Being out on the mountain will feel just as it always has.

Many resorts doubt they will reach the capacities set this year because of the vast area. Resorts like Solitude and Alta have been limited in past years by their parking ability, so veteran skiers can expect similar resort availability this year.

Check websites for updated information

As the ski resorts stay flexible and continue updating to meet state guidelines, they ask that skiers keep an eye on their websites and social media channels. With all the changes, it is best to stay informed before heading up for a day on the mountain.

“We’re telling people to know before you go. We’re really encouraging people to check the website before they even get in the car to come up,” Huskinson said.

All Utah resort websites have up-to-date info on what they are doing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. For resorts like Alta that limit parking, they will use their website to give estimates on when parking will fill up. Knowing before you go will help skiers stay safe while providing them with more information than ever.

Lastly, ski resorts ask that guests be patient with employees and other skiers. As this is a new experience for everyone, there will likely be small hiccups along the way. 

“We are doing our best to communicate clearly what people can expect,” Huey said. 

“We need to be nimble and we need to anticipate that change is likely. We just ask that people be patient with that process.”