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What to expect on New England’s ski slopes this season of COVID

With new safety guidelines in place, resorts are ready for a winter of social distancing for skiers and snowboarders.

A nighttime photograph of the slopes at The Lodge at Spruce Peak in Vermont.
The Lodge at Spruce Peak in Vermont.jesseschloffphotography.com

These days, it can feel like an exercise in futility to try to predict what the next week will bring, never mind a month or two ahead. But one thing is certain in these uncertain times: Winter is coming. And if spring and summer were any indication, we’re going to want to get outside — safely — as much as possible.

Mountain operators across New England know this, and they’ve spent months working hard to ensure ski season will happen, even if it won’t look quite like it has in years past. All things considered, though, skiing and snowboarding are fairly well-suited to the crazy times in which we are living. They are naturally socially distant — outdoors and spread across wide-open spaces, with bulky equipment serving as built-in buffers. And while traditional ski masks with breathing holes are not the CDC-approved sort all mountains will mandate in lodges and other indoor spaces — as well as, in many cases, in lift lines and on the lifts — most skiers are already accustomed to wearing face coverings of some kind. “I don’t think there’s any doubt there’s going be extremely high demand this year for skiing in New England,” says Tim Smith, the general manager of Waterville Valley Resort, a midsize, family-friendly mountain in Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. “People are not scared of driving in a car, and we have good transportation through our highway infrastructure to many ski resorts. And let’s be honest, skiers are pretty much suited up for preventing a pandemic already.” There’s only so close you can get to another skier — on purpose, at least.

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Hitting the slopes this season will, however, require quite a bit more planning. For one thing, state travel restrictions and local health guidelines are always changing. As of late-November, Vermont had the tightest restrictions, with all nonessential travel to and from the state requiring a 14-day quarantine either in Vermont or in the state you’re traveling from (or, if you’ve not had any symptoms, a 7-day quarantine followed by a negative COVID test). Maine’s guidelines exempt visitors from Vermont and New Hampshire from testing or quarantine requirements — but, as of press time, guests from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island would have to do one or the other. Although more flexible work- and school-from-home schedules mean more families are looking at extended stays near their mountains of choice, such potentially complicated interstate travel has many mountains counting on an increase in their in-state day trippers. Wachusett Mountain in Princeton, for example, already a popular day-trip destination for people in Greater Boston, is preparing for nothing short of an onslaught.

And like most everything else these days, pulling off a ski vacation will require far more flexibility. While most locations have set up plenty of guidelines for welcoming guests safely, operators also acknowledge there will be a lot of learning and adjusting on the fly as skiers arrive and the season progresses. As fall’s spike in COVID cases has shown us, things can change quickly. “We’re workshopping every possible scenario, but no one knows what it’s going to look like,” says JJ Toland, the communications director at Jay Peak resort in Jay, Vermont. “It’s like playing pin the tail on the future.” Here’s what we know so far.

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Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts
Wachusett Mountain in Massachusetts.Handout

Getting There

While many ski resorts are still waiting to hear from their local governments about capacity restrictions, it’s likely that most will be operating below their normal numbers. To prepare, many will ask all or most skiers to make reservations, with season pass holders getting priority. Vail Resorts, which owns seven mountains in New England — including Okemo and Stowe in Vermont and Attitash, Wildcat, and Mount Sunapee in New Hampshire — will require reservations for all skiers and give season pass holders best and earliest access to the reservation system. Sugarloaf and Sunday River resorts in Maine, which teamed up this year to offer access to both mountains under the Maine Pass, will not ask passholders to make reservations, but strongly recommend that those without passes buy their lift tickets online in advance (opening day was also earlier for pass holders). Wachusett will not require reservations for passholders, but will limit season pass sales, and may sell tickets by four-hour sessions, instead of by the day, to accommodate as many skiers as possible.

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More than ever, it would seem, a season pass is the best option for skiers and riders able to commit this year to a “home mountain.” To acknowledge the risk involved in buying a season pass for an activity that has not yet operated fully under COVID, most pass programs are including provisions for a season cut short. In Woodstock, Vermont, for example, the Suicide Six Ski Area is guaranteeing buyers that if the season becomes limited to 30 operating days or fewer, pass holders will be able to roll the pass forward to next year.

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All that being said, many mountains are reluctant to discourage spontaneity — or to discourage guests in any way at all. And the problem with making reservations too far in advance, of course, is that you’re stuck with whatever weather you get. Jay Peak’s typical season sees half of its visitors coming from Canada; if the border remains closed, it’ll be a boon for U.S. skiers this year in terms of capacity. Jay Peak “will not expect Jay Peak Season Passholders to make a reservation,” its blog notes, “we will not force day trippers to buy tickets in advance (although you’ll get the best rate when you do), and we’ll be happy, euphoric even, to sell you a walk-up, window rate ticket if you’re chasing a storm or the spirit simply moves you.”

Portrait of young man in sportswear with snowboard isolated on a white studio background.
Adobe Stock

On the Mountain

Running a ski mountain is expensive, and with an anticipated reduction in revenues — plus the added expenses of accommodating new safety guidelines — many resorts are playing it conservatively. In some cases, skiers can expect postponed lift upgrades and other improvements, and fewer open trails to help reduce snowmaking costs. Terrain parks in particular, full of manmade snow obstacles, are expensive to make; a mountain that previously had four might open just one this season.

That said, several mountains, including Attitash, fast-tracked the installation of touchless, RFID gates to allow direct-to-lift access (and eliminate human-scanned lift tickets), limit window ticket sales, and help manage skier volume. Sugarloaf also installed new lift ticket kiosks to reduce the need for human-to-human contact, while Wachusett implemented curbside equipment rental service. Sunday River, like most mountains, streamlined the equipment rental pickup process by diverting those guests to a separate lodge entrance.

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Social distancing, meanwhile, will be rigorously enforced indoors and in lift lines, with lift-line layouts adjusted to allow spacing between lanes. Operators will also not combine unrelated parties on chairs except in cases where seating is roomy enough to allow for a few feet of separation. Following guidelines issued by the state of Vermont, Jay Peak created a plan that includes mandatory masks in all public spaces (indoors and outdoors), capacity restrictions on the tram to the peak, and reduced seating at restaurants and bars, all outlined in a living document that will continue to be updated and refined as winter approaches. Vail Resorts will also require masks in all indoor and outdoor public spaces, including in lift lines and on lifts themselves. The state of New Hampshire, meanwhile, issued ski area reopening guidelines that include mandatory face coverings unless physically distanced, skiing on a trail, or eating or drinking. The state also requires hand sanitizer stations throughout the ski area, and single-direction foot traffic where possible. Enclosed cabin lifts, like gondolas, will operate with windows open.

Ski school class sizes will be limited, or split into cohorts, and kept outside as much as possible. In New Hampshire, mountains will follow the state’s amateur and youth sports guidance; Sunday River in Maine will maintain a 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio for all kids’ and adults’ lessons and has added new private clinic options for families to let siblings or parents and kids take lessons together. Sunday River is hiring more instructors, but expects to sell out on high-demand periods like weekends and holidays (making reservations is mandatory).

View of the mountain ski slopes at Sunday River in Maine.
Sunday River in Maine.Handout

In the Lodge

If you grew up skiing around New England, back before lodges were destinations in and of themselves, you might remember packing a bag lunch and booting up at the car. That’s a lot like how it will be this year.

Most resorts will limit lodge capacity, and many will prohibit storing gear or changing inside. To encourage guests to use their cars as de facto base lodges, many mountains, including Sunday River, are adding parking lots and porta potties. The resort will also allow bathroom access from the outside only, where possible, to avoid unnecessary indoor traffic. Cafeterias will offer more to-go options and exterior-facing pick-up windows, along with order-by-phone capabilities. Like restaurants everywhere, resorts are adding as much outdoor seating as they can.

Aprés Ski

Although gathering restrictions differ from state to state — and resort restaurants and bars will operate accordingly — it’s guaranteed that aprés ski will look very different this year. The live music and boozy hot tub scenes that have come to define the post-ski experience for many will be replaced by something far more sedate, though hopefully still plenty festive. The Lodge at Spruce Peak in Stowe, Vermont, for example, will offer fireside aprés ski by reservation, tableside service at its outdoor ice rink, and dining in heated igloos offering views of Mount Mansfield. Vail Resorts won’t open its full-service bars but will sell packaged beer and wine. The Bag & Kettle, long a favorite aprés spot for Sugarloafers, will operate with limited seating. Sunday River will let guests order food and drinks by smartphone to be delivered elsewhere in the lodge, in order to spread groups apart.

A skier heading downhill at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.
Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.Handout

Where to Stay

By now, most hotels have mastered their safety protocols — which include pre-check-in by e-mail, daily temperature tests for staff, and rigorous cleaning — and many will offer flexible cancellation policies, too, to mitigate risk for guests worried about committing. Occupancy will vary according to state guidelines, but many hotels are likely to be running at reduced capacity throughout the season. Jay Peak got creative (and went high-end) with a $15,000 “Relocation Vacation” package that includes four season passes and 160 days in a private cottage; more than half of the available 86 were sold out by September. The moral: Book early. Demand for condos and houses, meanwhile, both through the mountains and through platforms like Airbnb and VRBO, is way up, since for many families it may feel like a safer way to ski and stay. Maine skiers are snapping up long-term rentals as far away as Portland. At Sunday River, the resort sold more than half of its new condo development in less than two weeks, even though construction won’t be completed until 2022.

But skiers and snowboarders have always been a hardy and committed lot. And although it’ll take more effort and planning, there’s a good chance resorts will not only see solid levels of returning guests, but also plenty of new ones itching for something different, and relatively safe, to do. “Most skiers, and Northeast skiers especially, are used to some level of uncertainty,” says Adrienne Isaac, a spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association, which represents 320 of the 470 ski areas in the United States. “And I think we’re going to see a demand for people to get back out — and not just our core skiers and riders, but also some newcomers who feel cooped up at home and might have experienced new recreation opportunities over the summer and want to carry that through.” It may not be the best season ever, but it will certainly be one to remember.

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Alyssa Giacobbe is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.