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MATT PEPIN

What is it like to go skiing during a pandemic?

I felt safer going skiing at Berkshire East than I do when I go to the grocery store, and I have generally felt pretty safe at the grocery store.

A view down the "War Dance" trail at Berkshire East on Dec. 24, 2020.
A view down the "War Dance" trail at Berkshire East on Dec. 24, 2020.Matt Pepin/Globe staff

Throughout the summer and fall, winter sports enthusiasts have fixated on one question: What will skiing and snowboarding be like during a pandemic?

The protocols, travel restrictions, and other modifications being implemented to allow skiers and snowboarders to return to resorts have been discussed, debated (sometimes hotly), and analyzed in countless forums. But nothing can substitute for seeing for yourself, and with that in mind I took my first ski trip of the pandemic on the day before Christmas.

The TL;DR summary is this: I felt safer going skiing at Berkshire East than I do when I go to the grocery store, and I have generally felt pretty safe at the grocery store.

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With the usual family gathering off the board for Christmas Eve, things fell into place nicely from a planning perspective. My family of five could easily comply with every regulation, and we’d stay in Massachusetts so we didn’t have concern ourselves with any state-to-state differences in travel policy. Wearing a mask was no problem — we’d all likely be wearing some sort of face covering anyway — nor was maintaining physical distance from others at the mountain.

Signage reminding skiers and snowboarders of pandemic protocols and requirements are located at the entrance to the lift lines and many other locations at Berkshire East.
Signage reminding skiers and snowboarders of pandemic protocols and requirements are located at the entrance to the lift lines and many other locations at Berkshire East.Matt Pepin/Globe staff

My primary issue concern was making reservations, which many resorts require so they can limit the number of people visiting on any given day. I tend to wait to commit to a destination until I can see how certain factors will play out, including weather and number of trails/lifts open, and I like the flexibility of making a final call sometimes only a day or two before going on a ski trip.

But I did not want to be shut out on this golden opportunity — I’m hoping the Christmas Eve ski trip can become a tradition — so I locked in eight days before the trip, purchasing three tickets and reserving two Indy Pass tickets. At the time I purchased, I noted there were 75 slots reserved for Indy Pass holders, and out of curiosity I checked the availability of Indy Pass slots every day until my trip. It trickled downward over the eight days, but on the day we skied, there were still 64 available.

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Two days after buying, again out of curiosity, I started to track the number of adult and junior all-day tickets to see what the movement might be as the day drew closer. When I first checked after purchasing, I felt like I made the right call because Berkshire East’s online store showed only four adult tickets and 10 junior tickets left. The next day, the number of adult tickets had jumped to 19 and the junior tickets dropped to six. By ski day, there were six adult and two junior tickets left.

Thirty heated cabanas will be available for rent at Berkshire East Ski Area in Charlemont this season to allow small groups to have their own space in an outdoor setting.
Thirty heated cabanas will be available for rent at Berkshire East Ski Area in Charlemont this season to allow small groups to have their own space in an outdoor setting.Matt Pepin/Globe staff

I spoke with Berkshire East’s general manager, Gabe Porter-Henry, a few days after my trip and he explained a number of factors go into ticket availability and that availability fluctuates largely because of tiered pricing designed to incentivize those who commit early. So when tickets sell out at one price, more become available, but usually at a higher price. He said when a resort reaches its final tier, no additional tickets would be available after selling out.

He also said managing the resort capacity is a bit of a moving target with no hard limit, especially outdoors. Indoor capacity follows state regulations. On the day I went, it was not crowded and the parking lot was nowhere near full, and most of the cars had Massachusetts plates.

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“We’ve set this up to be able to be monitoring and changing this as needed,” Porter-Henry said.

Capacity is a bigger issue for indoor spaces at ski areas, and many are asking guests to use their vehicle as a personal lodge to keep crowds from developing in base lodges. For some, gearing up at the car and having lunch there is no big deal — it’s the way they’ve always done it — and at Berkshire East, attendants guided cars into spaces that left ample room on either side. It was a pleasant surprise when you’re used to having only a couple inches between you and the next car in a Boston garage.

The tables in Berkshire East's main base lodge have been sectioned off with plastic sheeting to allow parties to be physically distanced while using the lodge.
The tables in Berkshire East's main base lodge have been sectioned off with plastic sheeting to allow parties to be physically distanced while using the lodge.Matt Pepin/Globe staff

At Berkshire East, the main lodge was modified to separate each table and place screens made of plastic sheeting between them. Reservations to claim a table for 30 minutes at a time are free, but Porter-Henry said there’s not a ton of demand.

“Most people are opting to not be in those indoor spaces anyway. We’re seeing those spaces being underutilized,” he said.

Berkshire East created a new outdoor patio, shifted food services to outdoors, and is putting the finishing touches on 30 private “cabanas” (they look like backyard sheds) that are heated and can be rented for $125 a day. The resort also manages the arrival process in new ways, with clearly marked paths for one-direction movement, outdoor ticket windows, a greeter to ensure mask compliance and direct people, and signs everywhere to remind about protocols and directions.

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“I’m really happy and encouraged by the compliance we’ve seen by the vast majority of people,” said Porter-Henry, who added he reminds a few guests each day to put on a mask. “People have been polite, they’ve been cooperative. I have not seen conflict. I think that will be the trend across the industry.”

As for the skiing itself, well, when you are out on the slopes, nothing is really different at all, and it was easy to forget you were wearing a mask. The lift line entrance is when you are snapped back into reality when you see the mask and party size reminder signs, the electronic gates modified to allow just two instead of four guests through at a time, and lift attendants wearing masks and reminding those who may have forgotten to put theirs on.

The only real issue I worried about was skiers who removed their masks immediately after getting on a lift. Porter-Henry said Berkshire East has not had to ask anyone to leave for noncompliance, but that he would do so if the circumstances called for it. Most of the people there on the day I visited were always wearing masks and complying with the rules.

“It takes a huge amount of effort just to get a ski area open, and to do it with COVID, it’s hats off to our employees to be able to accommodate and get people outside and recreating,” Porter-Henry said.

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Porter-Henry also said he was relying on tolerance, understanding, and good faith on the part of skiers and resort operators to ensure skiing and snowboarding can go on during the pandemic.

“This is a partnership between the mountain and the users,” he said.