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As Visitors Arrive, Vt. Ski Industry Confronts Pandemic Restrictions

People in winter gear waiting in line
Abagael Giles
Skiers wait in the lift maze at Smuggler's Notch Resort on Saturday, Dec. 12. Ski resorts are tasked with enforcing strict COVID-19 quarantine rules for out-of-state travelers.

The recent winter storm brought a deluge of snow to southern parts of Vermont, and with it lots of skiers. Pictures circulating on social media showed crowded lift areas and resort parking lots full of cars with out-of-state license plates.

In a typical Vermont ski season, roughly 4 million visitors flock to the state's ski resorts, pumping millions of dollars into the economy. This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, out-of-state visitors are required to quarantine before hitting the slopes, and resorts have been asked to follow strict public health guidelines.

That's prompting some Vermonters to ask how the industry and state are enforcing public health guidelines. 

VPR's Henry Epp spoke with Molly Mahar, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: From what you're hearing from ski areas so far — we're still early In the season of course — are out-of-state visitors generally complying with the travel restrictions?

Molly Mahar: Well, we think so. I do know that we've seen very strong interest and participation in all things outdoor recreation, and skiing is no exception to that. We did see season pass sales, which were down last spring, understandably, because of all the uncertainty, really rebounded with the late summer and early fall at many of the ski areas.

But I think as we've seen the season draw closer, and now we're in the season, especially out-of-state season pass holders have really realized that the travel restrictions are getting more stringent, not less. And so, as a result of that, we've seen a lot of ski areas processing many, many requests for either refunds or to defer season passes.

People are definitely hearing that message. And the ski industry has really been working really closely with the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing to get that message out there.

Whose responsibility is it to make sure that someone has quarantined when they show up to ski in Vermont? I mean, is anyone really checking that very closely?

Well, that's been the difficult thing. You know, you really can't tell. And I think, you know, it would be up to the state, I guess, and they have not been able to sort of articulate how that happens. Certainly, we have to take people at their word, but we are really saying, to be able to have a complete ski season and a healthy ski season, we're really asking for people's cooperation in that area.

How are resorts messaging these changes, the restrictions, say in markets like New York and Boston? Is word getting out beyond the state of Vermont that there are a lot of restrictions here if you want to come ski?

It is. The Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing was able to get more funding for marketing, and they have a campaign running right now to let people know about that.

In addition, the ski areas have used a number of channels. Resorts have really done a great job of collecting email addresses from their guests and building up their databases. So, they really have a good and direct channel to be able to talk with their skiers before they come.

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

How do things look different right now at the resorts?

Well, I think you are seeing more space in lift lines, for example. So, you may see pictures of lift lines looking longer, and that largely is because we need to have the distance built into the way the mazes are set up and the way people are queuing up to ride lifts. It's 50% capacity. If people from more than one party are riding together on, say, a quad chair, you could only have two people.

Indoor space capacity is quite limited and being managed. This really means that skiers may have to boot up and warm up in their vehicles, really using their vehicles more as a base lodge. We're seeing conversion of outdoor spaces, making them a little more comfortable for people to spend more of their day outside — using fire pits, other heaters, wind screens and in some cases, even tents.

In terms of the enforcement there at the resorts, I mean, whose responsibility is it to make sure that the people are following guidelines, that they're maintaining distance, that they're not crowding the lifts or lift lines? Where does that responsibility fall?

That is with the ski areas. Those are part of our guidance from the state and in terms of being able to operate this year. You'll see additional signage. We also have additional employees out in the lift mazes, for example, reminding people that they need to have masks on, they need to be distancing.

Please realize that these employees are reminding you about this because it's for your safety, the safety of other guests and our employees.

"Please realize that these employees are reminding you about this because it's for your safety, the safety of other guests and our employees." — Molly Mahar, Ski Vermont

In terms of the economic outlook for the industry, how do you expect Vermont to fare this season, particularly compared to the Vermont ski areas' usual competitors out in the western part of the country?

We have the advantage of being a drive market, but we know that a lot of our drive market is very limited in how they can access the state right now. So, I think from that standpoint, we're somewhat potentially on similar footing [with the West] just because people are not jumping on airplanes as frequently and heading out West to ski either. So, they are somewhat limited out there.

We do see a majority of our skier days come from out of state in a typical year, and that is going to mean a very challenging winter from a business standpoint for both large and small ski areas, and not only ski areas, but the many businesses that rely on skier traffic.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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