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From the lodge to the lift, this year's ski season will look and feel very different

Resorts are ready for "skiers and riders to get outside and do something that is a really healthy choice, both physically and mentally. And I think that’s something that we all need right now,” said one industry expert.
Image: Chris Griesmeyer dons ski goggles and a mask to protect him from the harsh wind chill
Big ski states such as Vermont and New Hampshire still have quarantine rules in place for those who visit from states with high positive case rates.Mark Welsh / Daily Herald via AP file

Ski masks are set to take on a new responsibility this winter as resorts, skiers and snowboarders across the country gear up for their first full season since the pandemic cut last year’s short.

Vail Resorts, the largest mountain resort operator in the world and home to Breckenridge, Beaver Creek, Park City, and Mount Snow, is requiring face coverings and social distancing in lines and on lifts. The company is also implementing a new reservation system and lift ticket limit to control the number of visitors on its mountains as positive coronavirus cases continue to top daily records.

“We believe everyone who wants to get on our mountains will be able to,” Rob Katz, CEO of Vail Resorts, wrote in a letter to guests in August. "We want to provide assurance to our guests that we will do our very best to minimize crowds at all times — be it a holiday weekend or the unpredictable powder day."

In September, the company reported over a 67 percent drop in income compared to last year, due to the negative impacts of Covid-19. However, season passes for this winter are up 18 percent through mid-September, according to the most recent earnings report.

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Vail Resorts was one of around 40 industry leaders and public health officials who helped the National Ski Areas Association create the “Ski Well, Be Well” guide to best practices including face mask use, social distancing, increased cleaning, daily employee wellness checks and more.

“Our goal is to open and to stay open,” NSAA President and CEO Kelly Pawlak told NBC News. “‘Ski Well, Be Well’ is giving the opportunity to skiers and riders to get outside and do something that is a really healthy choice, both physically and mentally. And I think that’s something that we all need right now.”

Vail is also implementing a new reservation system called “Time to Dine” to adhere to capacity limits.

“In the past, it was like sardines in a can packed in there that you were more or less shoulder to shoulder, chairback to chairback," said Wolfgang Sterr, director of food and beverage at Keystone in Colorado, where the indoor capacity was recently downgraded to 25 percent. “This is not how we can operate,” he said.

Ski Sundown, a privately owned mountain in New Hartford, Connecticut, is another ski area following recommendations from “Ski Well, Be Well," and will be implementing a new online ticketing system with a 50 percent cap on sales.

Sundown is also encouraging visitors to snack and change in their car as opposed to at the ski lodge, a move some have dubbed the “Car Chalet.”

“It's really just getting back to kind of an old school scheme where you showed up, you put your boots on in the car, you went to the lift and then you came back to your car, had a sandwich,” said Bob Switzgable, owner and president of Ski Sundown. “You just showed up, got on the lift and off you went. We're trying to encourage that because our lodge will be open, but it will be at 50 percent capacity.”

Some big ski states, including Vermont and New Hampshire, still have quarantine rules in place for those who visit from states with high positive case rates. In a recent survey, only 29 percent of skiers and snowboarders said they felt comfortable about traveling on a commercial airline, compared to the 78 percent that felt comfortable doing so by car, according to consumer intelligence and consulting firm RRC Associates.

Although she doesn’t plan on traveling as much as she normally does this season, Linsey Hempel, a lifetime skier who frequents Colorado's Summit County slopes, is hopeful for it.

“I'm excited. I am really hopeful and optimistic that the resorts will be able to maintain high standards when it comes to terrain opening and keep really high health and safety standards while staying open to the public,” she told NBC News.

“Skiing is such a privilege and a treat. I think that if everybody just slows down a little bit and takes the time to be more conscious of how we can be safer, it will allow everybody to have a much longer and safer season and it will be better for not only this year but for the industry as a whole,” she told NBC News. “I think it will bring a lot of joy to people if we do it right.”

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Some winter sport fans may not need to travel at all. New real estate trends caused by the pandemic have seen an exodus from cities such as New York and Los Angeles to popular mountain areas that are home to resorts.

“Existing home sales in counties that have popular ski resort destinations — Boulder, Larimer, and Pueblo in Colorado; Salt Lake in Utah; and Rockingham in Vermont — are up by about 25 percent to 40 percent in September on a year-over-year basis,” said Gay Cororaton, Senior Economist for the National Association of Realtors. “The pace of home sales in these counties exceeds that of the U.S. overall."

Overall, the nature of the sport itself foreshadows a positive outlook for its upcoming season, according to some winter warriors.

“You pretty much wear a face mask all the time anyway," C.B. Bechtel, executive director of the competitive youth program Team Summit Colorado, told NBC News. "In the summer to keep you from getting sunburned in the winter, to keep you warm. The masking, social distancing, being outdoors — you know, all that's inherent to our sport to begin with.”