Mask on, tips up: What to expect on New York's ski slopes this season
VIRGIL – Thick, wet snowflakes covered Greek Peak Mountain Resort a week ago, creating temporary whiteout conditions and painting the brown mountainside trails a brilliant white.
It didn't slow down the employees and contractors hustling throughout the resort. Rather, the snowfall served as a reminder — winter is coming, and there's so much to get done.
Benches in the rental equipment building were being cut apart and converted into cubbies, where guests will now store their shoes after they've been wrapped in plastic.
Tables and chairs were removed from communal spaces and stacked up in the narrow walkway between rows of lockers, leaving plenty of open space for social distancing within the lodge.
And contractors continued working on the gaping hole in the side of Trax Pub & Grill, the site of two future outdoor ticket windows.
The goal is to make it possible for visitors to come to the mountain, ski, eat and even use the restroom without ever having to enter a building if they don't want to.
As temperatures dip closer to consistently freezing and winter approaches, ski areas throughout New York are preparing for the upcoming season with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. The pandemic cut last year's season short when it forced much of the state into a shutdown in mid-March, and ski resorts have wasted no time in preparing for their eventual reopening.
Places like Gore Mountain, Greek Peak and Holiday Valley are all gearing up for this year's ski season — and while they're looking forward to opening, they want visitors to know changes are coming.
They're sending out email blasts and updating websites and sharing information through social media channels, hoping to get the message out to anyone and everyone who might visit during the 2020-21 season.
Drew Broderick, Greek Peak's vice president of sales and marketing, said it's been a lot of work preparing the resort for the upcoming ski season — for Greek Peak, but also for ski areas across the state.
"I think that's one thing people don't realize — how much of an undertaking it is," Broderick said. "There's literally been no downtime since COVID hit."
At Windham Mountain in Greene County, one of the biggest things Dave Kulis is concerned about is "setting expectations."
"Our goal for this year is to get open and stay open ... so our goal is to make sure everyone understands how we're going to operate," said Kulis, Windham's director of sales and marketing.
What to expect this year
The key this year, ski areas say, is going to be to plan ahead — and to plan on abiding by new guidelines.
Ski resorts are eager to welcome everyone back, said Jamie Storrs, the senior manager of communications for Vail Resorts' eastern region, which owns Hunter Mountain in Greene County.
But things are going to be different, and guests are going to be asked to be patient and flexible when it comes to following state mandates as well as resort-specific rules.
"For the vast majority of the season this year, we anticipate of being able to host everybody who wants to ski and ride," Storrs said. "And, you know, we're expecting some pushback on (masks), because there always is, and folks that don't want to wear a mask are invited to kindly recreate elsewhere. That's not going to be something that we bend on this year."
Here's a rundown of what you can expect on the slopes and in the lodge this year:
You'll likely need to buy tickets in advance. Reservations are going to be key this year, both for managing reduced capacity limits and for contract tracing. Some ski areas will allow same-day lift ticket purchases upon arrival, but many will not. The state is allowing ski resorts to operate at 50% capacity.
There will be blackout days. Some days will only be available to season passholders, particularly the typically busy days buffering holidays and school breaks. It'll depend on the resort, but for popular vacation days it'll be best to reserve your lift tickets before booking lodging or finalizing travel plans.
Amenities might be limited. Spas, pools, hot tubs, arcades and all other extras that some resorts have might not be open, or may require advance registration to keep capacities in check.
Use your car in lieu of a locker. Ski resorts, in an effort to combat gathering and socializing indoors, are asking visitors to come dressed in their winter gear and boot up in the parking lot. Guests who do not need to rent equipment and do not have access to a seasonal locker will generally be encouraged to use their vehicle to store their gear.
Masks are going to be a necessity. Winter sports attire has always included face coverings of some sort, and that's something ski areas are thankful for this year. For most resorts, the only time guests will be allowed to remove their masks will be when they're eating or actually riding down the hill. All other times — like walking around the resort, riding the chairlift or taking a lesson — they'll be required.
You can hang out with the people you came with, but that's it. At many ski areas, guests are strongly encouraged to ride chair lifts, ski and dine solely with their family members, people they live with or the people they traveled with in the same car. And for the most part, visitors won't need to ride the chair lifts with strangers. Solo skiers and snowboarders will be permitted to ride double chair lifts alone, and will sit on far opposite ends of larger quad chairlifts.
There won't be an 'après ski' scene. Hanging out at the bar, chatting with friends around a fire pit, socializing after the last run of the day — it's not something ski resorts are encouraging this season. Some resorts have closed bar seating altogether, and others have created new dining options (think food trucks) that can serve customers completely outdoors. Expect to see limited seating and new arrangements designed to encourage dining in small groups.
You don't have to quarantine if you stay in New York. Bad news for New Yorkers who make a point of traveling to Vermont each year to take advantage of its ski scene: You'll have to quarantine. Vermont requires all out-of-state travelers to quarantine for 14 days or 7 days followed by a negative COVID-19 test. If you're a New York skier and want to avoid a quarantine, you'll have to stay in New York.
The good news
New York ski resorts have been planning all year for this, and they're pulling out all the stops to ensure they protect the health and safety of employees, guests and surrounding communities.
Thankfully, Windham's Dave Kulis said, lovers of winter sports tend to be resilient, passionate people.
"For a lot of people, skiing and snowboarding is their happy place," Kulis said. "To them, it's worth being accommodating to protect the season."
In previous years, there's been an unspoken contest to see which resort is able to open up first. Usually the winning ski area would race to cover a handful of trails and open with select runs, welcoming tons of eager visitors with just a few trails to share.
But in a COVID world, bunching up skiers and snowboarders on a limited number of trails just to claim the title of first to open isn't the best play.
"I don't think that thinking is prevalent this year," Kulis said. "As much as we are competitors in the industry, we're all eager to share best practices with each other. ... Nobody wants to create a situation that makes things worse."
Georgie Silvarole is the backpack reporter for the USA TODAY Network's New York State Team. You can reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her on Twitter @gsilvarole.