The outdoor industry is preparing for a mostly normal winter, but the ski season arrives at a precarious moment in the pandemic.
State of play: Most ski areas are lifting mask mandates, reservation requirements and capacity restrictions that defined the season a year ago, and operators are hoping to see skiers and boarders return to the slopes and restaurants in droves.
- The looser rules come as COVID-19 cases in Colorado are reaching comparable heights to last year, when public health restrictions were put in place to limit the virus' spread.
What they're saying: "It will be a lot less restrictive and a lot more normal season," said Kristin Rust, a spokesperson for Alterra Mountain, which sells the Ikon Pass and operates the Steamboat and Winter Park resorts.
What to know: The rules that remain in place differ by resort — a hodgepodge that may create confusion and make compliance uneven.
- Many ski areas, including Arapahoe Basin, Aspen Snowmass, Copper and Vail, are mandating vaccines for employees but not for skiers and riders.
- Vail and Aspen are requiring proof of vaccination for indoor dining and cafeteria-style restaurants on the mountain, but most others are not following suit.
- Face coverings are required only in indoor settings, and Aspen is one of the only ski areas to require masks in gondolas.
Flashback: Last year, staying open was the main goal for resorts after the pandemic cut short the 2019–2020 season, forcing them to issue refunds or discounts on passes and lift tickets.
How skiers and riders would respond to reservation requirements and other limitations was unclear, but operators said the season went better than expected.
- "We were deeply, pleasantly surprised with the number of skiers and riders that said, 'I'm going skiing.' They are a very resilient and dedicated bunch," Rust said.
- "It was a topsy-turvy roller coaster," added Chris Linsmayer at Colorado Ski Country USA, an organization that represents about two dozen ski areas. "Things were going great at some points and poorly at others. … People are relieved to have it in the rearview mirror."
What to watch: Alterra and Vail Resorts — which offers the Epic Pass — say sales are strong and preseason bookings are giving them hope for a rebound.
- The worry for operators is whether local restrictions will be implemented midway through the season as COVID runs rampant.
- In addition, limits on international travel may impact visitor numbers.
The bottom line: The mood is "cautiously optimistic," Linsmayer said. "Last year is kind of the baseline, so we could only do better."
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