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Business & Economy

Utah Ski Resorts Determined To Open — And Stay Open — This Winter

A photo of a sign at Snowbasin encouraging social distance guidelines.
Snowbasin Resort
All 15 Utah ski resorts are making big changes this winter to limit the spread of the coronavirus, though skiing is still considered a relatively low risk activity.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the ski season to an early close, setting off the longest off-season in Utah skiing history. But at a panel discussion hosted by Ski Utah Monday, officials from Utah’s resorts said they’ve been working since then to make sure the 2020-21 season is a success, even though coronavirus cases across the country are spiking in record numbers.

For all 15 Utah resorts, the strategy is similar: keep people outside and physically distant. Resorts based their individual plans on guidelines outlined by the National Ski Area Associations trade group, but also came up with modifications of their own.

In general, lifts and gondolas will be limited to individual groups. Signage will encourage and help people stay apart as they wait in line. Resorts are also opening new grab and go food options to avoid crowding indoor spaces, which riders can eat outside or in their cars.

“We want to encourage people to think of their vehicles as an alternate place that can be their locker room, a place to eat lunch, a place to get out of the weather because space is limited indoors a little more this year,” said Michael Maughan, president and general manager of Alta Ski Area.

At most resorts, people will need to buy tickets and passes ahead of time, though some offer same day tickets. Park City Mountain is even requiring reservations for all skiers, including season pass holders, so communications director Jessica Miller recommended starting to plan now.

“Most days, for the vast majority, we anticipate everyone who wants to ski is going to be able to,” Miller said. “The areas that are going to be a little trickier are [in the] early season when we have limited terrain. You [also] want to think about holidays, weekends, times that could be more busy, but that's why you plan ahead early.”

Limited buses and shuttles will also present a challenge, especially in the Big and Little Cottonwood Canyon roads. Winter traffic is expected to be even worse than usual this season, as more people head outdoors to escape the pandemic, but are less likely to ride the bus or carpool with people outside their households.

Snowbird general manager Dave Fields said resorts are working with the Utah Department of Transportation and the Utah Transit Authority to help manage the notoriously congested roads. Buses up the canyons will be limited to 20 people, he said, which is down significantly from the 50-60 riders they can normally hold.

“That means you'll need to get on a school bus earlier in the route,” Fields said. “If you're trying to get on the bus right before it gets into Big or Little Cottonwood Canyon, it may be full.”

But he said UTA is adding nine buses to the fleet, and will also be sending out text and social media alerts to let people know what’s happening. He added that as Alta and Snowbird near capacity for individual cars, UDOT will occasionally close the canyon and not allow any others up.

The new protocols and operations will likely cause delays and frustration for riders, but Ski Utah President Nathan Rafferty said people should try to be patient. Things will be different this year, but he predicts they will get smoother as people learn the new processes.

And if the new guidelines are followed, the risk of spreading or catching the virus at a ski resort will be pretty low, according to Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health.

“What's the worst thing you could do?” he said. “Go spend a lot of time in a packed bar where everybody's got their mask off. If you look at skiing, it's actually pretty good — you maintain that distance, which isn’t hard because you’ve already got skis on. You remember to keep your mask on. And you minimize the amount of time you spend in any sort of closed environment.”

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