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Vermont's Mountain Towns Get Ready For A COVID-Restricted Ski Season

A woman stands outside an inn sign
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Carina Hellström owns the Gray Ghost Inn in West Dover and is worried both about the lack of reservations and the potential risk of COVID-19 spread from travelers for the upcoming winter ski season."

The state released its COVID guidelines recently for skiing and snowboarding, and state officials have made it clear: This winter will be like none other at the resorts, and in the nearby communities that serve the mountains.

Carina Hellström has owned the Gray Ghost Inn in West Dover for more than 20 years. And she says the past few months have been rough.

“Basically what happened, Mount Snow closed on Sunday, March 16. So because of that, the upcoming weekend, which was fully booked, everybody canceled,” Hellström said. “And then the governor shut us down in April. “

The hospitality industry has been perhaps the hardest hit sector of Vermont's economy during the first seven months of the coronavirus pandemic.

More from VPR: Vermont Ski Towns Juggle Tourism Economy With COVID-19 Concerns

Hotels and inns, Hellström's in West Dover, lost all their business through the spring. And it wasn't until halfway through foliage before they were allowed to operate at 100%.

As it becomes clear that there will be limitations on how much business the mountains will be able to do this winter, Hellström says she's expecting even more loss from the relentless financial fallout of the pandemic.

“The reservations are just not coming in right now,” she said. “So I'm worried. I'm really worried what's going to happen this winter, because it's completely out of my control. And this valley relies so heavily on Mount Snow.”

"The reservations are just not coming in right now. So I'm worried. I'm really worried what's going to happen this winter." — Carina Hellström, Gray Ghost Inn owner

The Agency of Commerce and Community Developmentreleased new rules for Vermont's ski resorts on Nov. 3, and they include limits on the number of people allowed in the lodges and on the lifts. The state also says resorts will be expected to crack down on people who don't follow Vermont's quarantine protocol.

The latest map showsan increasing number of counties that are in the red zone, and so Hellström says it all means fewer visitors to the valley, and to her inn.

“We've seen so many increases in other states, and you know, we don't have a vaccine,” Hellström said. “I mean, I think we're more prepared, and I think people in general here are wearing masks and social distancing, and doing the right thing. But you look around the country, and that's not the case. So it is concerning. Because after all, people come from other states to visit here."

A mostly red map of the northeastern United States with a few spots of green, yellow and blue.
Credit Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, Courtesy
The state's cross-travel map, seen here using the latest data as of Nov. 3, indicates that interstate travelers from all but three Maine counties and just one county each in New York and Pennsylvania are subject to Vermont's COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Business in Dover was off about 40% in the spring, according to the town's economic development office. Things actually picked up a little this summer with tourist traffic and an increase in second-home owners riding out the pandemic. And once the inns opened during fall foliage, numbers were right in line to what used to be normal in this tourist-driven economy.

Dover economic development director Eric Durocher says that while no one expects a record breaking ski season this year, whatever business does get generated will be a welcome shot in the arm for the area inns and restaurants.

More from VPR: Health Officials Ramp Up COVID-19 Restrictions At Vermont Ski Areas

“Once that ski mountain opens, Mount Snow opens in November, we're going to definitely see the traffic picking up again,” Durocher said. “You know, barring any major setbacks, knock on wood, you know I think we're looking at a pretty successful winter.”

But Durocher says life on the mountain and among the businesses in town will definitely be different this year. He added that the business owners who are flexible and figure out ways to adapt will be the most successful this winter.

"Well that's a Vermont thing; you don't go down without a fight. I would say the overall vibe, if you want to say, in this valley, would be that everybody's trying to do the best they can." — Tara Bourne, Tadi's Food Truck owner

Dave Kelly is a co-owner of Sticky Fingers Bakery in West Dover, and his strategy is to pump up the number of sticky buns and cupcakes he makes to help everyone adjust to the new normal.

“So they're not going to have all the restaurants. They're not going to have the bars,” Kelly said. “People are going to have to wait in these lines, which I imagine are going to be longer than usual. And then they're going to get burned out on the mountain waiting on the lines and not having the amenities, and then coming to the village."

He added: "I'm just hoping that the village doesn't get overwhelmed with surly people from out of state, not understanding or feeling bad, 'cause they spent a lot of money and they didn't get what they thought they were going to get. And now they're going to take it out on the local population.”

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Tara Bourne, left, and Diana Squires inside Tadi's food truck along Route 100 in West Dover.

Back in the early winter, before COVID even hit, Tara Bourne had plans to open a food truck along Route 100 in Dover. Even as the pandemic grew, Bourne said she decided to go for it and open up.

Business was pretty good this fall, and Bourne says she wants to stay open during the winter. She plans to serve snowmobilers and skiiers from her truck right along Route 100, and build slides and seats in the snowbank.

More from VPR: Vt. Resorts To Skiers: Be Flexible, Be Patient, And Maybe Bring A Sandwich

It will take more than a pandemic, Bourne said, to get people in the Deerfield Valley to give up.

“Well that’s a Vermont thing; you don’t go down without a fight,” she said. “I would say the overall vibe, if you want to say, in this valley, would be that everybody’s trying to do the best they can. That’s all I know about that. That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

Things usually quiet down during  stick season, and business owners in the Deerfield Valley are now catching their breath, and getting ready for whatever this winter of COVID brings.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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