On the first storm day in December, the lodge at Alpine Meadows was eerily empty. It was noon on a wet and cold Sunday, and normally the cafeteria would be bustling with skiers and riders looking to warm up and grab some food before heading back out on the slopes. The lodge’s fireplace was crackling with a cozy fire, yet not a soul was enjoying its warmth. Of the dozens and dozens of lunch tables in the cavernous space, not a single one was occupied. There were no lines for food, only a lone skier perusing the cafeteria’s offerings. When I asked the cashier behind the plastic partition if this was normal for a Sunday lunch hour, the answer was a resounding no.
Nothing is normal about the year 2020, and ski resorts are no exception. While ski areas are allowed to remain open under California’s regional stay-at-home orders, and Gov. Newsom has publicly stated the importance of outdoor recreation for mental and physical health, resorts have had to make significant changes to their operations and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that their guests and employees can remain safe during the pandemic. Although visitors will see many changes, especially at the base area, skiing itself remains the same. And in a year when so much is closed, the fact that skiing remains open provides a small sense of normalcy during a time when that word has become almost obsolete.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. last winter, ski resorts shut down suddenly in mid-March. Since then, they have been preparing to open safely this winter. Ski California used the nine-month interlude between seasons to work with the National Ski Area Association to develop guidelines for ski resorts. The NSAA’s plan is outlined in a catchy campaign called Ski Well Be Well with the even catchier slogan of “Be the Reason We Have a Season.” The state adopted many of these protocols for its ski resort guidelines, which were finally issued on Dec. 1. These include many of the rules that people have become familiar with almost a year into the pandemic: Face coverings must be worn in high-density areas, physical distancing is required in both indoor and outdoor spaces, high-touch areas must be disinfected regularly, and all food and beverage should be primarily to-go.
But these guidelines were going to be useless unless the ski resorts were allowed to open. Ski California worked closely with the California Department of Public Health to include ski resorts in outdoor recreation, which is permitted even under stay-at-home orders since the state recognizes the benefits of outdoor activity and that the wide-open spaces of ski areas afford plenty of room for social distancing. (Ski California’s website has links to all its member resorts’ COVID protocols.)
There was also another motive.
“One reason ski resorts are still open is that we know what happened last time during stay-at-home orders: we were closed and everyone still came to Tahoe and other mountain communities,” said Ski California President Michael Reitzell. “Because we can provide an organized and controlled environment, we hope we will allow people to follow the rules and spread out and avoid risky activities like backcountry skiing, and be safer than [gathering on] sled hills.”
On the hill, skiing and riding doesn’t look that different. It’s the lifts and base area where the biggest changes are happening. All around Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows signs have been posted reminding guests about the new rules. “Be Wise Sanitize” reads one above a giant bottle of hand sanitizer at the bottom of Red Dog chair. Another sign says, “Live Together Ride Together,” a reminder that skiers should only be riding chairlifts with members of the same household. Single skiers can share a chairlift with others only if both consent and they can leave at least one space between them. (The slogan was originally “Drive Together Ride Together” but that had to be modified once state guidelines were issued.)
Perhaps the biggest visible change besides all skiers, riders, and employees wearing masks are the lift lines, where ski resorts are doing their best to enforce 6 feet of separation. This is easier to achieve front-to-back due to the natural separation created by the length of skis and snowboards, but harder to achieve side-by-side. To that end, ski resorts are using ghost lanes, an empty lane between two rows of skiers. Squaw Alpine spokeswoman Alex Spychalsky said that on weekends, the ski resort is even employing a 6-foot measuring stick to keep guests apart and bullhorns to remind people to keep their masks on and maintain social distance.
“We are doing lift-line management all the time. Lines are going to look a lot longer and wider apart horizontally,” Spychalsky said. “It’s hard, we are all getting used to it. We are all trying to remind each other.”
After the first significant snowfall of the season at Squaw, the line for the funitel stretched to the pavement. Mountain hosts were standing in the ghost lane frantically trying to remind people to keep their distance, but once skiers got closer to the entrance to the funitel, social distancing went out the window as the eager crowd naturally massed together on the stairs to fit through the gates. Funitel cars are operating at 25 percent capacity, which means up to seven people. The seats are folded up to create more space and windows kept open.
“People are really excited to get to be outside,” Spychalsky said. “People have been really cooperative so far. We can’t operate and keep the season going unless guests are on board.”
A key part of this ski season is messaging. All ski resorts along with the North Lake Tahoe Conventions and Visitors Bureau have stressed the importance of guests doing their research before arriving at the mountain. The North Lake Tahoe CVB has a Know Before You Go informational guide and a Preparing for the 20/21 Winter Season blog post with information about ski resorts’ COVID protocols. The visitors bureau CEO Jeffrey Hentz said that traffic to its website is up 8 percent with zero advertising, and 60 percent of that is going to its COVID page.
“Our web traffic is through the roof and we are not marketing,” Hentz said. “People are planning. Web traffic is not going to lodging or building an itinerary, it’s going to our COVID page … Know Before You Go emphasizes plan, plan, plan. You can’t just show up. We are trying to influence behavior and people’s decision to come up here.”
Ski resort officials echo the statement about planning ahead. No walk-up tickets are available. Most ski areas have a limited number of day tickets available for sale exclusively online, and rentals are also only by reservation.
“Our message for the season is — don’t walk up and expect to buy anything,” said Paul Raymore, spokesman for Diamond Peak Ski Resort. He encourages people to visit Diamond Peak’s website to learn all the rules and regulations and make sure there is availability.
Northstar is the only resort in North Tahoe that is requiring reservations to ski. Passholders can book up to seven days for the following week, and up to seven days of priority reservations for any dates of the season. Guests can book slots on the website or the app for any mountain under the Epic Pass. Jon Shanser, who lives in Squaw Valley but is spending the winter in Vail, Colo., part of the Epic Pass coalition, to be with his new grandchild, said that the reservation system is going fairly smoothly so far.
“Once I learned how to use it, I have not found the reservation system to be onerous, but I have found that I can’t get some of the dates I want [during peak times],” he explained. “It doesn’t change how I think about any of it, except when you get shut out it’s annoying.”
Implementing COVID guidelines and safety protocols have not come cheap. Squaw Alpine spent $1 million on related measures such as purchasing electrostatic sanitizing sprayers to use in shuttle buses and stores, HEPA air scrubbers in high-density areas like the lodge, partitions to separate guests and employees at ticket windows and restaurants, and upgrades to all restrooms that didn’t have touchless fixtures.
“We really want to do it right, obviously,” Spychalsky said.
Guests will also see big changes at all indoor spaces. At Squaw Alpine, seasonal lockers have a 15-minute time limit, and locker managers do a sweep of the area every 20 to 30 minutes to make sure guests are complying. At Estelle Sports in Alpine, only six guests are allowed at a time in the store. On that busy Sunday, security was monitoring the lobby to ensure that nobody was lingering inside for too long and that guests standing in line for Estelle were staying 6 feet apart.
“Priority number one is — stay open,” said Scott Russell, a member of the Alpine Meadows security team who was keeping an eye on the lobby area.
And skiers can pretty much forget about eating or warming up inside. Everything is grab-and-go at most resorts. Ski areas are encouraging people to eat outside on the deck if the weather is nice, tailgate, or take lunch inside their car.
“We are telling people that if you are not prepared to be outside and get wet and cold, it’s not the time for you to come skiing,” Spychalsky said. “You can’t expect to spend a lot of time in lodges. Storm days are for hard-core skiers.”
On that wet and cold storm Sunday at Alpine, all skiers that Moonshine Ink talked to didn’t seem to mind the cold; they were just thrilled to have the resort open.
“We are so happy, we missed half of last season,” said Stephanie Sentz, who is from the East Bay but has a house in Tahoe Donner. “We love it so much. I am happy to follow whatever rules I need to follow to be here.”
All skiers interviewed by Moonshine also said that everyone they observe is following the rules.
“I don’t see anyone without masks on,” said Jack Mandel from San Francisco. “Skiing is great for mental health, to get outdoors and get fresh air. Following the rules is so important so resorts can stay open.”
Ski areas emphasize that it will take customers’ cooperation to keep the resorts open.
“We are hoping that customers understand resorts are doing everything we can to ensure we are allowed to have a ski season, but we really need customers to do their part,” Raymore of Diamond Peak said.
Violations of COVID protocols will not be taken lightly. Squaw Alpine has a three-strikes-you’re-out policy for not wearing masks, as with any ski resort infraction. If guests don’t comply on the third strike, their season pass could be suspended. Frontline employees are also going through de-escalation training.
Although regional stay-at-home orders were issued on Dec. 10 for the Greater Sacramento Region, which includes Tahoe, most people don’t see a conflict between that order and ski resorts being open. California’s COVID information website states that people should “avoid traveling long distances for vacations or pleasure as much as possible,” adding “don’t drive more than 2 to 3 hours.”
“If people are able to take short drives and do day trips to resorts, that’s what people are allowed to do,” Reitzell said. “They have been encouraged to get outside if they can do that and follow state orders.
Even staunch critics of over-tourism in Tahoe feel that ski resorts being open at this time is a good thing.
“I don’t see any inconsistency with the regional stay-at-home order that went into effect last week,” wrote Cheri Sugal to Moonshine in an email. She lives in Kings Beach and has been hammering Placer County to do a better job of controlling tourism during the pandemic. “Where I do see inconsistency and would like to see more local action/enforcement is limiting tourism.”
Like all major hotels and lodging in Tahoe/Truckee, Squaw Alpine canceled all of their lodging reservations through the end of the year due to stay-at-home orders.
While chairlift lines and lodges may look different this year, and you can probably forget about après ski — one thing remains the same: skiing and riding. On the first powder day of the year, the hoots and hollers coming from skiers offered perhaps the only collective experience left for people during this pandemic — the pure joy of sliding down a mountain together.
“When you get to the top of the chair and look at all the open space and the run you are about to take, we hope that’s about as close to normal as you are going to feel right now,” Reitzell said. “And we hope we can offer that to skiers and riders.”