WESTMINSTER — There’s no snow on the ground at Wachusett Mountain Ski Area, but it’s already crawling with people. Hikers make their way up and down bare trails, examine chairlifts with curiosity, and peer longingly into a lodge that hasn’t opened for the season.
Mountain sports have long been popular with those who can afford them during New England’s long winters. But this year, as COVID-19 continues to limit indoor gatherings, its appeal is only growing.
That would normally be good news for ski resorts, which report sky-high interest in advance tickets and season passes. But for an industry trying to recover after the pandemic forced ski areas to close early this spring, the continued threat of the virus means severe limits on how many paying customers will be allowed.
“We’re their psychological shelter,” Carolyn Stimpson, co-owner of family-owned Wachusett, said of skiers anxious to hit the slopes. The ski area is getting lots of inquiries from people in Boston and Worcester who might not normally ski, or who would usually travel out of state if not for pandemic travel restrictions.
“They need the endorphins from being outside. They need the sun. They need the wind in their faces,” Stimpson said. “All we’re trying to do is figure out how to give them the opportunity.”
The mountain will probably have to operate at about half its normal capacity of 4,200, even as it spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on improvements to accommodate social distancing. It has amassed an armada of heat lamps and picnic tables for outdoor dining, built a new deck on the ski rental building that allows customers to gather their gear outside, and brought in a fleet of portable toilets to keep too many people from congregating indoors.
Lindsay DesLauriers, president of Bolton Valley Resort in Vermont, not far from Burlington, said the prospect of not being able to welcome everyone who wants to visit is maddening.
"It’s a terrible, terrible irony,” DesLauriers said. “Typically, we love to see growing demand, because it means more business. But, no matter where we look, we’re restricting that business.”
Many in the industry note that skiing is an activity that isn’t likely to spread a virus. It takes place outside, often under windy conditions. People are mostly distanced from each other, and they usually cover their mouths and noses to stay warm.
Chairlifts, gondolas, ski rental shops, and lodges, however, can create major bottlenecks.
Resorts are limiting the number of people who can ride on a lift. Those who come together can ride in groups, but singles lines — which allow solo riders to mix in with other customers — can’t be used to pack the seats.
And though many resorts will open their lodges with social-distancing measures in place, people are being discouraged from hanging around or enjoying long lunches or apres-ski beverages. Ski areas also are urging people to get themselves and their gear ready in their cars, and to expect to remain mostly outside.
To limit crowds, resorts such as Wachusett are also imploring customers to buy tickets or make reservations in advance. There may not be room for those who simply show up.
Some of the changes to the way the industry will operate this year also threaten to make skiing, already an expensive sport, even more prohibitive. People who can afford season passes will have an advantage over other skiers in some places. Many resorts are giving priority to holders of season passes, who spend thousands of dollars to get access to a mountainside.
“Places are almost pricing out anyone who doesn’t want to buy a season pass,” said Bryan Hickey, ski program and marketing manager at the Boston Ski and Sports Club, which has been arranging trips from the city to the mountains for a quarter-century.
This year, the group is trying to find ways to help customers navigate the added complexities by securing group rates and arranging socially distanced transportation and lodging.
Vail Resorts, the Colorado conglomerate that owns New England properties such as Vermont’s Mount Snow and Stowe and New Hampshire’s Attitash and Wildcat, told investors in September that its sales of season passes were up 18 percent, compared with last year.
The company is putting season holders and people who buy multi-day lift ticket packages first when it comes to making room at its mountains, giving them exclusive rights to early-season skiing and special access to reservations for skiing and boarding during the peak season.
Jamie Storrs, spokesman for Vail Resorts, said the company is doing what it can to stick by its most loyal customers during a difficult year. He said people will still be able to buy single-day tickets, starting Dec. 8.
Another factor making it difficult for casual skiers this year is the uncertainty around interstate travel.
Maine and Vermont have already issued strict quarantine and testing rules on travelers from Massachusetts, making spur-of-the moment travel impossible. New Hampshire has no such policy currently in place, but if the COVID-19 crisis worsens, that could change. Or Massachusetts could toughen its rules for residents returning from those states.
To avoid the risk of being unable to ski, some people who have the financial means are planning to take off for the winter altogether. Many resorts have converted some of their hotel rooms into private “cabanas," where people can live and work remotely from the slopes for the whole season.
At Bolton Valley, DesLauriers said it has already sold out all of the 17 cabanas that the property prepared for the season.
She said she’s sympathetic to the efforts to prevent people from bringing the virus to Vermont. But those measures come at a price for the resort.
“We need them to be able to come and ski, so I would say that I’m generally supportive, and I would just hope that our out-of-state guests don’t get demoralized,” she said.
Bolton Valley expects revenue to be weaker than last season, which was down because it was cut short when the pandemic arrived.
Brian Bernatchez, a financial planner who lives in Belgrade, Maine, will be decamping to a second home that he and his wife, Amy, own near the Sugarloaf resort, a little over an hour away, returning sporadically for work.
He’s excited about the weekdays, when he’ll have the slopes mostly to himself, free from concerns about COVID-19 and long lift lines. But he recognizes that his state’s economy will be better off if the resorts can find a way to serve as many skiers as possible.
“It will never survive just on season pass holders,” Bernatchez said. “When you’re in the middle of Northwestern Maine, you need people to come from all over on the weekends in order to make it a survivable business model.”
Matt Pepin of the Globe staff contributed to this report.