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Sunday, September 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

‘Any availability?’ Region’s ski resorts plan for upcoming season under pandemic

By John Nelson For The Spokesman-Review

Dialing …

“Hello – Mount Spokane? I’d like to reserve for Saturday. Any availability?”

It’s true: COVID-19 is even changing our lives on the ski hill, where you may need to reserve a spot to shred powder this season as crowd sizes are limited.

Much is still uncertain as resorts work out their operating plans and the state of Washington comes up with its own phased reopening guidelines, but you can expect some kind of reservation system at many ski areas.

“It will probably mean lift tickets will need to be purchased in advance, with a limited number being available for each day,” said Eric Bakken, general manager of 49 Degrees North. “It may also mean that season passholders will need to make reservations in advance for some of the busiest days of the season.”

In Idaho, it’s a slightly different story, with more relaxed COVID-19 guidelines. Still, Silver Mountain will also ask skiers to buy ahead, general manager Jeff Colburn said.

“It is a possibility that day tickets will only be sold online for high-demand days,” he said.

These changes are happening in the wake of Vail Resorts’ announcement that it will require skiers to have reservations before visiting the corporation’s 34 North American resorts this year.

Vail, which owns Stevens Pass Ski Resort in the Washington Cascades and the massive Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia, announced a number of other safety protocols:

  • Mandatory face coverings inside and outside.
  • Seating on lifts with related parties only.
  • Any solo skiers will be physically distanced.
  • Ski lesson classes limited to six people.
  • Daily employee health screenings.
  • Limits on the number of people inside dining facilities.

Vail’s reservation system will give priority to its Epic Pass holders, said Marc Riddell, West Coast director of communications for Vail Resorts.

“If you’re a passholder, you’re definitely going to have the first crack at the reservation system,” he said.

“You might not be able to ski if you don’t have a pass.”

Here are some of the discussions happening at resorts around the Inland Northwest:

Mt. Spokane

At Mt. Spokane Ski & Snowboard Park, new general manager Jim van Loben Sels is considering a number of safety protocols and will announce a COVID-19 operating plan “in the next month or so.”

“I want it to be fun to come skiing,” van Loben Sels said. “If people are nervous and worried about getting up on the mountain, then it’s not fun.”

In a phone interview, van Loben Sels, who replaced longtime GM Brad McQuarrie this season, speculated about some of the recommendations he might bring to the Mt. Spokane board for approval. Those could include requiring masks, extra spacing in lift lines, reducing ski lesson class sizes, moving some concessions from the lodge to outside and the biggest change: reducing mountain capacity.

“The number of people at a ski area is obviously outside the state’s gathering-size mandate,” he said. So under a limited crowd-size scenario this winter, once Mt. Spokane reaches its capacity, “then we’re done,” he said.

If that happens, Mt. Spokane would communicate its full capacity over social media and through signage on the roadway to the resort.

As for a reservation system, van Loben Sels said it could work like this: “If you know you want to ski on a certain day, you can reserve a spot and buy that ticket.”

But exactly how a reservation system would function is still being discussed.

49 Degrees North

Bakken said skiers will need to plan ahead before coming to the mountain.

“We’ll be asking our guests to do as many things in advance as possible,” including purchasing tickets, signing up for lessons, and registering for rental gear, he wrote in an email. “This will help us manage capacity (and) keep visitors flowing through any indoor spaces.”

The resort will also ask skiers and snowboarders to store their gear in vehicles rather than the lodge because of the reduced indoor capacity, Bakken said.

Season ticket holders will have many advantages, he said, because they won’t need to purchase tickets ahead of time, but for the busiest days of the year, they may need to reserve a spot on the mountain.

“We will put our passholders first and limit the impact on any restrictions on them,” he said.

On lifts: “Our biggest concern will be making sure anyone that isn’t comfortable riding next other guests simply doesn’t have to,” Bakken said. “On double chairs we will be able to load singles, and on our quad chair we can load two people on opposite ends of the chair to maintain that physical distancing.”

Silver Mountain

At the Kellogg resort, Colburn said season ticket holders will have priority on high-demand days and guests will be asked to stay with their groups.

“This summer we have been asking people to ride with those in their party or ‘bubble,’ he wrote in an email. “We expect this same plan will remain in place for the winter.”

The busy summer season at the resort has allowed it to implement “new COVID procedures such as additional cleaning protocols, limited restaurant capacity and effectively managing spacing inside our retail and other indoor activity areas.”

Silver Mountain still anticipates selling walk-up tickets, Colburn said.

“We expect that on lower-demand days we will be selling tickets at the windows,” he said. “Higher demand days we are currently exploring several different options to make it easy for guests to reserve in advance and allow us to control the number of guests.”

Schweitzer Mountain

The mountain’s plans are still in flux, said Dig Chrismer, marketing manager for Schweitzer Mountain.

But it’s certain that lodge capacity will be reduced and employees will be required to wear masks indoors, she said.

As for outdoors and in lift lines, Chrismer said no decisions have been made about mask requirements and social distancing.

“We’re considering everything,” she said.

Overall, the resort has seen a lot of visitors over the summer and she is expecting high demand this winter.

“People are seeking outdoor experiences closer to home. We’ve seen that this summer – people are coming up for scenic chairlift rides and mountain biking.

“People need to get outside,” she said. “It’s a mental health benefit during this difficult time.”

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