DENVER – Colorado health officials are weighing in on how to safely navigate the upcoming ski season amid a pandemic as eager skiers and snowboarders who have been cooped up for the greater part of a year prepare to hit the slopes in a matter of weeks.
The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment released its final guidance Monday after gathering feedback from resorts and county health officials. They list now-common safety measures for skiers to follow, including physical distancing, wearing masks and gathering in small groups.
“Outdoor activities like skiing and snowboarding can be lower risk if done with proper precautions, both on and off the slopes,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the state health department. “We have to proceed carefully and be willing to evolve if necessary.”
Resorts are encouraged to sell lift tickets online or by phone, to ask guests if they have symptoms of COVID-19 or might have been exposed, to limit ski school groups to no more than 10 students, to load lifts and gondolas in a way that keeps guests in different groups socially distanced and to consider using reservations to limit the number of visitors.
The guidance also establishes standards for ski areas to allow travelers to isolate and quarantine if they test positive for the coronavirus, to ensure that employee housing is safe and to have a plan to shelter guests and staff members if extreme weather rolls through.
During a Tuesday briefing about the pandemic, Gov. Jared Polis said the upcoming ski season will differ substantially from previous ones, especially when it comes to crowded off-mountain activities like apres ski events and nightlife.
“That is not what skiing looks like in a pandemic,” he said.
Resorts are trying to avoid a repeat of last spring when many mountain communities were disproportionately hurt by the virus as travelers from all over the country and the world converged for spring break, causing concerns that small community hospitals didn’t have the resources to treat patients with the disease.
This time around, industry leaders and health officials are hoping the knowledge that comes with several months of life during a pandemic will help guide their efforts to provide a safer experience while maintaining an industry that typically contributes between $5 billion and $6 billion annually to the state economy.
Under the new guidelines, ski areas must submit a safety plan to local officials for approval. Once approved, the plan would head to the state health department for a final sign-off.
With snow already on the ground, most resorts in Colorado have already released safety plans and have asked guests to curb their expectations. Most are in line with the new state guidelines, but only a handful will require reservations.
Vail Resorts, which owns five ski areas in Colorado, has announced it will implement a reservation system that allows pass holders exclusive access at the beginning of the season, unlimited week-of reservations and a rolling selection of priority days.
Resorts will limit capacity based on past visitation rates, available terrain and traffic modeling of the upcoming season, CEO Rob Katz said.
He acknowledged that some guests might not be able to ski and snowboard any time they want but said, “the bottom line is, is that in a typical season for most days, capacity at our resorts is at a level that would not require us to have to impose any limits.”
Keystone Ski Resort, which is owned by Vail Resorts, has announced it will open on Nov. 6. Loveland Ski Area and Arapahoe Basin – which have a mostly friendly competition to be the first to open in Colorado – haven’t announced their opening dates but generally aim for late October or early November.
Purgatory Resort north of Durango is planning to open Nov. 21.
Most of the other resorts in the state open over the following weeks and into December.
Associated Press writer James Anderson contributed to this report.