Golf and skiing don’t seem to have much in common, besides the fact that both are done in the great outdoors. But in the year of COVID-19, that similarity can make all the difference in the world.
Some Connecticut golf courses this year reported increases of 30 to 40 percent in the number of rounds played, mainly due to the fact that the sport was one of the few that could meet government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for social distancing and is played, obviously, in an open air setting. The state’s ski area operators are counting on that same combination of factors to bring people to the slopes and woods this winter, hopefully with smiles on their faces – until they need to put on their masks, that is.
“I think that the concept between golf and skiing is very similar,” Ulla Jacobs, marketing director for Ski Sundown in New Hartford, says. “Snow sports are naturally experienced at a social distance. People tend to spread out and pick their own path to ski or ride the mountain. It’s a very individual sport. Because of the cold temperatures, most skiers and snowboarders are used to face and hand coverings while they’re outside. And with our new socially distanced lift policies, there’s nothing to keep you from enjoying the fresh air and mountain views.”
Brian McCloskey, guest services and marketing manager at Mount Southington Ski Area in Southington, believes people want to be able to get outside and get some fresh air, especially during the sometimes long, dark days of winter. “With skiing, you’re typically wearing gloves and face coverings because of the cold temperatures – and you’re usually trying keep your distance from others while you’re on the hill to avoid making contact with another skier or snowboarder,” he says. “We feel skiing is a great way to get outside and exercise while we are in this pandemic.”
Jim Shockley, branding and equipment director at Mohawk Mountain Ski Area in Cornwall, says that “in these trying times, people need an escape,” a reprieve from the never-ending pandemic news cycle. “If we can offer our customers a small sense of normalcy while they’re doing something that they love – or have never done before – the impact will be felt physically and emotionally.”
Winding Trails is a several hundred-acre cross-country ski area in Farmington that is a refuge for residents during the winter. Scott Brown, executive director, is confident the area can provide a safe environment for skiing. “Being outdoors on 12.5 miles of trails is the perfect environment to enjoy nature, get exercise, and be safe,” he says.
Brown notes that skis are essentially built-in social distancing barriers. “You can’t get with six feet of another person. Also, with 380 acres, you can certainly find space to be alone.” The potential issue that Winding Trails may have involves interaction in its ski center. People who rent skis will need to social distance and wear masks until they get outside. “We will be limiting the number of people in our rental area,” he says. “And our lodge will be limited to 50 percent capacity for those looking to get a snack or warm up inside.”
Ski Sundown has been collaborating with the Connecticut Ski Area Association (CTSAA) to put together a unified and comprehensive COVID-19 plan over the summer and fall months. This plan, guided by the recommendations of the state of Connecticut and the National Ski Area Association (NSAA), consists of a COVID-19 Responsibility Code and COVID-19 Operational Guidelines.
McCloskey says Mount Southington Ski Area officials worked with all ski areas in Connecticut to come up with general guidelines that “all could follow” this winter, based on state guidelines for businesses. “We put a plan in place to show the state that we are all working together to make sure we do whatever we can to keep our guests safe. The state approved our plan.”
In an effort to allow for social distancing on and around the slopes, Mount Southington Ski Area is taking a number of steps, including allowing day tickets to be purchased ahead of time, with capacity limits set on a daily basis. There will also be a 50 percent capacity limit inside the area’s lodges and rental areas.
Outside, there will be empty lanes at lifts to space people riding side by side, and skis and boards “naturally give you appropriate distance in front of you and behind while waiting in line,” says McCloskey. “We will ask our guests to only ride on the lifts with people they came in the same car with – and will allow those who wish to ride the lift alone to do so.”
In addition to the above steps, Mount Southington’s staff will be required to wear masks on property. At the start of each shift, employees will take a temperature reading and answer a questionnaire before they are able to clock in. Everyone will be required to wear safety masks inside the area’s restaurant and cafeteria, and will be following guidelines set forth by the state and the CDC. As for the lodge, Mount Southington will be following state restaurant guidelines. “Even if we [as a state] progress to a higher percentage allowed inside, we will be keeping to the 50 percent capacity for this season,” said McCloskey.
Laura Loffredo, director of sales and marketing for Powder Ridge Ski Area, as well as Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park and Fire at The Ridge in Middlefield, says management and staff at those facilities “learned a lot this summer” after successfully opening them to the public.
Sean Hayes, president and chief executive officer of Powder Ridge Mountain Park & Resort, said of the resort’s summer opening, “We operated at a limited capacity level with strict policies and extensive staff training. We have taken what we learned and coupled it with our industry organizations, the CTSAA’s COVID response and the NSAA’s “Ski Well, Be Well – Ski Area Operations Best Practices” to form comprehensive policies and procedures.”
Face coverings will be required at Powder Ridge Ski Area at all times when indoors, and when physical distancing is not possible to maintain a safe distance. Lift, lodge, rental shop, and lesson capacities have been reduced to allow for physical distancing. The resort has relocated its retail store to add more socially distanced seating space in the base lodge; added heated outdoor seating, including a windscreen on its Ridgeside Tavern deck; opened its internet cafe in the restaurant to provide more seating for mid-week morning and early afternoon guests with free WiFi and charging stations; expanded its rental shop to allow for greater social distancing and improved flow; and added a heated seasonal tent for additional seating and event space.
Jacobs says Ski Sundown will be following the state of Connecticut capacity restrictions, which at press time allowed the areas to operate at 50 percent. “To better regulate our capacity, we have moved to an advance online ticket sales system, which allows us to cap the amount of tickets we sell each day. We strongly urge our customers to purchase their tickets online in order to avoid being turned away if we have reached our daily maximum capacity.”
Ski Sundown is also reducing building capacities to 50 percent, which will allow for social distancing and better flow throughout the buildings. These capacity limits will be monitored and maintained by “lodge hosts.” Lift lines will be socially distanced as well; both between the rows and groups of passengers. “We are asking that if you arrived together, ride together,” says Jacobs. “Otherwise, passengers will ride as two singles on opposite sides of a triple-person lift – or individually, if they feel more comfortable.”
Pre-packaged food will be offered in its food courts this winter, and more outdoor eating options will be available at its barbecue area. “Our bar, The Last Chair, will be open as well, according to state of Connecticut guidelines at the time of opening,” adds Jacobs. “We would like to encourage our customers to limit their time inside the lodge to quick food, changing, and bathroom breaks.” He hopes people will “cooperate and be kind, in regard to sharing this limited indoor space.”
Shockley explains that Mohawk Mountain Ski Area made improvements and renovations to its lodge to accommodate socially distanced seating, and opened up numerous walls to help increase air circulation. Restrooms have been reconfigured to allow for one-way traffic entrances and exits. “We have developed an app that will allow our customers to purchase their food and beverages without entering the lodge. Our app will alert the customer when their meal is ready so that they can pick up their order at an outdoor window with minimal exposure.”
Jacobs says ski areas have been preparing since the beginning of the summer to get ready for opening during the pandemic. “We think we can have an awesome season, as long as everyone understands that things will be different this winter, and that we all need to cooperate and have more patience and understanding during these unusual times.”
Of course, Mother Nature must cooperate for ski areas to open, but Shockley is hoping to open Mohawk Mountain the day after Thanksgiving, with other ski areas targeting the same day or a bit later. Winding Trails will need a good dumping of snow before people can hit the meadows and woods. Shockley adds whimsically but in all sincerity, “C’mon Mother Nature, we need your help this year more than ever.”
Now there’s an understatement.
John Torsiello, an independent writer/editor living in Torrington and part-time in Mount Pleasant, S.C., writes on a variety of topics. While he does not downhill ski, fearing an injury that would derail his modest amateur tennis career, he often enjoys gliding through woods and meadows on a pair of cross-country skis.