Is it safe to ski during COVID? The risks might be higher than you think.
For six months, I have been telling our traveler community it is not travel itself that is the highest risk. It is what you do when you get there. And in terms of activities, I have extolled the benefits of being outdoors and being active.
Planning My First Ski Experience During COVID
So when I had a week free before Christmas, I took my daughter skiing for two days. I took many precautions:
- I picked two weekdays for our trip, one of which was when public schools were still in session.
- We drove to our destination and only stopped once on the way for a short bathroom break.
- We booked a B&B that clearly addressed COVID on its website. In fact, we were the only guests both nights.
- We picked up food for dinner and ate in our room.
- I bought my tickets in advance.
- At the ski resort, I brought snacks and water with me and we never went into the lodge to eat or warmup.
- We wore masks and ski goggles.
Ski resorts themselves are changing procedures, adding costs, and reducing capacity to reduce the risk of COVID transmission. Where we skied at Hunter Mountain in New York, limits are in place for indoor dining, ticket sales, lift lines, and who can get on chair lifts together.
I did my research in advance, made my plan, and thought we would be safe. However, the reality of the experience was less than I was expecting.
Our Pandemic Skiing Experience
Within two minutes of leaving our car in the parking lot, we were standing in a line of several hundred people. Purchased a season pass but not used it yet? Get in this line. Bought a ticket online but need to pick it up? Same line.
After a wait of perhaps 30 minutes, we finally picked up our tickets, put on our skis, and … got in another line.
The reduced ticket sales undoubtedly helped the lift lines. But at the same time, in the smaller two-person, triple, or quad lifts parties were not seated together, which meant the efficiency of the lift was reduced dramatically. It seemed the two canceled each other out and lift lines were as long as you might normally expect.
Skiers and boarders will know how lift lines work at resorts. During busy days, they funnel people from three, four, or even eight or ten different lines, gradually merging the lines together to eventually form the one line that feeds onto the lift. Hunter Mountain did a good job separating the feeder lines by eliminating use of every other one. At least to start. Ultimately, however, the lines had to feed together and each time two lines merged, people crowded together to make sure they claimed their rightful spot.
So we ended up waiting in some lines for 45 minutes to get on a lift, more or less surrounded by dozens or even hundreds of other outdoor enthusiasts. To compound risks, a significant percentage of skiers (mostly snowboarders, actually) were young men who predictably exhibited riskier behaviors. While I saw one employee walking the lift lines telling people to put on masks, the incidence of mask drooping while in line was too high.
Is it Safe to Ski During COVID?
I do think you can ski or snowboard safely during the pandemic if you take the right precautions. Certainly, the lifts themselves and the actual skiing or snowboarding were quite safe. Here is what I suggest:
- Purchase your ticket in advance and do so far enough that the resort can mail it to you.
- Do not rent gear at the resort. Do so in advance in your hometown, far from the slopes and the crowds.
- Do not go into the lodge.
- Do not eat snacks or drink water in line, so you can keep your mask on. You can do eat or drink on the slopes.
- Pick a ski day when crowds will be lower or a resort known for no lines. We all love those ski and boarding days when we can swoosh right up to the lift itself.
- Choose those lifts that have shorter lines or are set up to do a good job keeping people apart.
- Consider snowshoeing or cross country skiing in the interim!
Resorts also could do their share with a few simple steps.
- Change the ticket pickup line to avoid the crowding.
- Instead of having lift lines merge, keep people in separate lines and then have one employee assign people to move forward towards the lift from the front of each line.
- Don’t allow eating or drinking in lift lines.
- Implement and enforce a two-strikes-and-you’re-out mask wearing policy.
During the second of our two days of skiing, I saw an older woman in front of us in line, sweeping her pole in a short arc behind her skis on the snow while casting furtive glances behind her at my daughter and me. In the good old days, I would have thought she was justifiably but a bit obsessively trying to protect her skis from my daughter accidentally running over them. Now, I can see she was probably worried about getting COVID in line. And it is good to be on your guard.
Update: My daughter and I went skiing again, this time at a smaller resort. We purposefully arrived later in the morning on the first day, which meant no lines. We purposefully avoided the chair lifts that were most crowded. This resort also had fewer young adults on the slopes and thus I saw almost perfect mask wearing in lines. Overall it seemed quite safe!