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Nation & World

Ski Down and Mask Up — Resorts Try To Stay Safe In Pandemic Skiing Boom

There's plenty of social distance out on the slopes, but resorts are requiring masks in lift lines and lodges and limiting lodge use. Most skiers and boarders are happy to comply but Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho had to suspend season passes for some who refused to wear masks and were verbally abusive to lift line attendants.
There's plenty of social distance out on the slopes, but resorts are requiring masks in lift lines and lodges and limiting lodge use. Most skiers and boarders are happy to comply but Schweitzer Mountain in Idaho had to suspend season passes for some who refused to wear masks and were verbally abusive to lift line attendants.

Eager to get out of the house and enjoy the outdoors, more people than ever are hitting the slopes on skis and snowboards.

"Oh, yeah. I mean, we sold probably a thousand more season passes this year than we ever had," says John DeVivo, the General Manager of Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire. "We were up about 20% in pass sales."

Those passes let skiers or snowboarders ski all season and can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the resort. DeVivo says there's also strong demand for single-day lift tickets too. "Every lift ticket that we put out there does sell."

DeVivo says he'd love to sell more — but to keep things COVID-safe, he's cut off additional season pass sales and is limiting the number of daily lift tickets.

Cannon Mountain General Manager John DeVivo skis and rides the chairlifts each day to make sure the safety rules are being followed. He wants to make sure the ski area can stay open and keep upwards of 500 workers employed.
Chris Arnold / NPR
Cannon Mountain General Manager John DeVivo skis and rides the chairlifts each day to make sure the safety rules are being followed. He wants to make sure the ski area can stay open and keep upwards of 500 workers employed.

Looking out across a wide trail called Avalanche, between steep snowy mountainsides plunging down towards an alpine lake, Devivo says, "This is probably one of the best things you could be doing during the winter months. But at the same time you do want to limit the numbers because you want to have more room for everybody."

While there's usually plenty of space out on the mountain, in normal times people get jammed together in lift lines or inside lodges.

So this year, 'your car is your lodge' is the mantra. Skiers and snowboarders must put on their boots and gear in the parking lot at their vehicles. Lift tickets have to be purchased in advance online, cutting down on long lines at ticket windows.

And you have to wear a mask or a neck gaiter over your mouth and nose whenever you're near other people. So that means in the lodge or outside waiting in the lift lines. Attendants with little bull-horns will remind you if you forget — "pull your mask all the way up please, all the way up!"

In the lift lines waiting to get on a chair to head up the mountain, skiers and boarders are reminded to wear masks by signs and attendants with little bullhorns. The lines are also more spread out with every other row empty. These are called 'ghost lines' to create more social distancing.
Chris Arnold / NPR
In the lift lines waiting to get on a chair to head up the mountain, skiers and boarders are reminded to wear masks by signs and attendants with little bullhorns. The lines are also more spread out with every other row empty. These are called 'ghost lines' to create more social distancing.

Most skiers and snowboarders are happy to comply. But some ski areas have run into problems with people refusing to wear masks and verbally abusing lift line attendants. Schweitzer Mountain Resort in Idaho recently shut down night skiing for the holiday weekend and has suspended some customer ski passes because of that.

"The F-bomb is dropped quite a bit," says Tom Chasse, the president and CEO of Schweitzer Mountain. He says in Idaho there's been some strong resistance to mask mandates in general.

"It's very politicized here," he says. Still he says, the vocal and stubborn anti-maskers are in the minority at his ski area. Most people follow the rules.

"95% of the people here, they get it. They're totally on board," Chasse says. He says Schweitzer Mountain has had record season pass sales this year, too.

Lift line attendants at Schweitzer Mountain remind skiers and boarders to wear their masks. The ski area's president Tom Chasse says, "95% of the people here, they get it. they're totally on board. They want us to stay open through the whole season."
/ Schweitzer Mountain Resort
Lift line attendants at Schweitzer Mountain remind skiers and boarders to wear their masks. The ski area's president Tom Chasse says, "95% of the people here, they get it. they're totally on board. They want us to stay open through the whole season."

Ski areas want people to follow the rules, in part, because they want to be able to stay open. Many employ a lot of people in rural areas.

DeVivo at Cannon Mountain says he has upwards of 500 workers relying on him-- lift operators, restaurant workers, the drivers for the big trail grooming machines, the crews that set up the guns that fire man-made snow onto the trails.

"We run the budget, we run the infrastructure, we run the the vehicle and equipment fleet of really a mid-sized New Hampshire town," DeVivo says.
He says his first priority is keeping people safe, but right behind that is being a major employer in the area. "People need to eat," DeVivo says.

Outside the main base-lodge at Cannon, Alyssa Sherburn is just happy to have a lift ticket and be escaping her house and out in the fresh air.

"Oh, it's fantastic," she says. "The conditions are great and just the process of putting on your clothing and coming up to the mountain, you take a couple of runs, it makes for a good day."

Sherburn came here today with her parents, who are helping her 2 1/2 year old toddler waddle around in a snow suit nearby.

"My parents had a snack out here on the picnic table," she says. "They were more comfortable outside, plenty of space for them out here."

Chairlifts designed to hold 4 people have a lot more single or double riders this year since you are only supposed to ride the chair with your family members or the people you came to the mountain with.
Chris Arnold / NPR
Chairlifts designed to hold 4 people have a lot more single or double riders this year since you are only supposed to ride the chair with your family members or the people you came to the mountain with.

Sherburn says she ate inside the lodge — the first time she'd eaten indoors at a restaurant since the pandemic began. But she says she felt okay about that because there was almost nobody in the lodge.

"They took my name and they took the time of the day so that there could be contact tracing if anything happened," she says. "It felt very safe."

Still, at Cannon, most people are not eating inside. There's a lot of tailgating in the parking lot. People bring camping chairs and their own lunch or have an 'après-ski' beer outside their car or truck.

"We really would like to see revenue increase," DeVivo says about restaurant and ski school sales being way down this year. But he says, "we've got to play things safe."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.