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Is skiing safe right now? Here are the risk factors to weigh and precautions to take, according to an infectious disease doctor and ski resort representative.

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The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the entire travel industry in 2020, and the ski industry is no exception. Early in the year, when the far-reaching impact of the virus became apparent, ski resorts shut down completely, curtailing their late spring ski season. But they've taken advantage of the extra time provided by the unexpected closure to plan extensive changes before the winter launch of the 2020-2021 season. Above all, ski resorts want to keep their guests safe and healthy.

We spoke with a ski resort representative, an infectious disease doctor, and researched the new safety measures to expect at most mountains this season. We break down how skiing and snowboarding will look different this year, what necessary precautions you should take before hitting the slopes, what risk factors are vital to consider, and whether or not it's ultimately a safe activity right now. 

How have ski resorts responded to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Ski resorts have implemented extensive new rules and guidelines relating to COVID-19, so it's best to check each resort's website for details before you plan a trip. In addition, states and counties have regulations you should know and follow, and ski resorts are including links to that information on their websites as well. For example, Aspen Snowmass is located in Colorado's Pitkin County, which recently introduced a Travel Affidavit Requirement — including a recent negative COVID-19 test or quarantine upon arrival — for visitors spending one or more nights in the area.

The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) offers a state-by-state listing of links to COVID-related restrictions and rules, and the NSAA's "Ski Well, Be Well" campaign outlines best practices for ski areas, skiers, and riders to stay safe and healthy on the slopes this season. Their recommendations include daily employee wellness checks, social distancing, face coverings, and increased cleaning and disinfection.

Vail Resorts is an industry giant, overseeing 34 ski areas throughout North America, including Park City, Breckenridge, Whistler Blackcomb, Heavenly, and Stowe. "To help protect our guests, employees and communities, we've reimagined our mountain experience for this unique season," says Sara Olson, Vice President of Communications at Vail Resorts. "We're fortunate that the core experience of skiing and riding takes places outdoors, with fresh air and wide-open spaces. Though things may look a bit different this year with these new safety protocols in place, the joy of the sport and getting back to the mountains remains the same."

What are the risk factors for skiing or snowboarding this year?

While outdoor winter recreation may seem relatively safe, skiing and snowboarding still involve riding lifts, standing in lines, and congregating in shelters to grab a hot cocoa and warm up. What are the risks involved, and what precautions would be wise for winter athletes to consider?

To help break down the answers, we looked at the safety measures ski resorts are introducing this year, and we asked an infectious disease expert to help evaluate the risks involved.

Traveling to and from the ski resort

Consider the relative safety of air travel versus driving or renting a car to reach your destination. Dr. Thomas A. Russo, Professor and Chief of the division of Infectious Disease at the University of Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, advises, "The safest way to get anywhere nowadays is to drive in your car just with people within your own household or social bubble." If you opt to fly, Dr. Russo points out that shorter, direct flights are safer than longer flights or those that require connections, and he stresses the importance of always wearing a face mask in the airport and on the plane.

Dr. Russo advises guests to skip the shuttle bus in favor of driving directly to the mountain's parking area in your own vehicle. "Getting to the ski lodge, I would suggest renting a car," Dr. Russo says. "I know in a lot of places you can take the hotel transportation or shuttle buses, but then you're going to see different people in a more fixed air space, so I don't recommend that; you increase your risk if you use shared transportation options."

Mindful of the increased risk, ski resorts are still operating ski shuttle systems this year, but they're taking safety precautions. For example, Jackson Hole is running their shuttles at reduced capacity, and guests are required to wear masks. They've instituted enhanced cleaning protocols and will keep bus windows open. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows has made similar changes to their shuttle system, adding frequent disinfection with electrostatic sprayers, reducing rider capacity by 50%, requiring face masks, and also keeping windows open.

Check ahead with the resort to see if they have any special parking procedures. To avoid overcrowding, Copper Mountain resort now requires guests to reserve their parking spot online before they arrive.

Staying at resort lodging

Since it doesn't usually require physically interacting with people outside of your bubble, Dr. Russo recommends renting an Airbnb as the safest lodging choice. If you decide to stay in a hotel, be aware of the risks involved, and be sure to book a hotel that's devised a strong health and safety strategy.

Start here with our guide to the best vacation rentals for skiing in the US. If you still prefer a hotel, check out our list of the best ski hotels.

Interacting with other people on the mountain

"The major risk of getting the new coronavirus infection is interacting with people, particularly without masks, in close quarters, for a long period of time. And indoors is much worse, particularly in poorly ventilated spaces," Dr. Russo reminds us.

Buying a lift ticket, renting gear, standing in a lift line, riding a lift up the mountain, taking a lesson, grabbing a mid-day snack — all of those routine ski-day procedures usually require gathering close to other people. But all of that is changing this season.

skiing
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What COVID-19 precautions are ski resorts taking?

With safety top of mind, most ski resorts are implementing new protocols and procedures that include:

Covid-19 training for employees: Many resorts, including Wyoming's Jackson Hole, are requiring all employees to undergo training on COVID-19 safety and sanitation protocols and submit to daily health monitoring. 

Reducing daily capacity: Ski areas have come up with an innovative series of changes to alleviate crowding at key points. Many have placed new daily limits on the number of skiers or snowboarders allowed on the mountain. "In addition to strictly enforced face covering and physical distancing requirements, we've implemented a new reservation system for the season across all of our 34 North American resorts," says Vail's Olson. "This system, which prioritizes our pass holders, helps us manage how many people are on our mountains on any given day, allowing us to provide guests the space they need to physically distance." 

Requiring the advance purchase of lift tickets: This isn't a good year to stand in long lines, even outdoor ones, waiting to buy lift tickets. That's why many ski resorts, like Vail, have discontinued walk-up ticket sales and are requiring the advance purchase of lift tickets, with preference given to pass-holders. Steamboat is not only asking guests to buy lift tickets in advance, but they've also installed touch-free pickup boxes in their base area that print tickets.

Making face masks mandatory: Face coverings are required equipment at ski resorts this year. At Vail Resorts, guests age three and older must wear masks to access the mountain, in all indoor spaces, in any line, on lifts, and whenever they are unable to physically distance. "I think one could probably wear a mask without any effect on their activity," says Dr. Russo. "And one of the nice things about skiing is most people wear goggles, so you've got built-in eye protection."

Spacing out lift lines: To allow ample space for physical distancing, ski areas will be expanding lift lines and mazes so that guests can stay at least six feet apart.

Limiting chair lift and gondola capacity: "Gondolas and trams make me nervous because I can imagine that it's a poorly ventilated space with people close together—it is really an indoor environment," Dr. Russo says. He suggests that resorts consider installing portable HEPA filtration devices in gondolas, if possible. It may be worth opting for a ski resort with outdoor chairlifts only or calling ahead of time to ask if they've taken any new filtration measures on gondolas.

"And even though chairlifts are much safer — being outdoors — if the person next to you, or you, are infected, you are going to be in close proximity, which raises a little bit of concern," he says. "And therefore, using masks would be a great idea."

Ski resorts are responding to this risk by strictly limiting the capacity of chairlifts, gondolas, and trams. For example, Sun Valley is following an "arrive together, ride together" policy allowing guests to ride lifts only with members of their own group. Otherwise, they are limiting double chairlifts to a single rider, allowing two separate riders on a triple or quad chair, and limiting gondolas to a single group, or one single rider, or two single riders seated on opposite sides.

Likewise, Vail Resorts are enhancing the cleaning and disinfection of their lifts while also limiting their capacity. Guests in groups may ride together, but unrelated parties will be spaced apart—two singles on a four-person chairlift; two singles or two doubles on a six-person chairlift; two singles on opposite sides of a gondola cabin.

Streamlining the gear rental process: Many ski resorts are changing their approach to ski and snowboard equipment rental this year to allow greater physical distancing. Many outlets are requiring online booking of gear in advance, so check to be sure. Vail Resorts is limiting the capacity of customers in its rental shops and requiring employees to wear eye protection and gloves in addition to face coverings. Rental equipment will be fully sanitized between customers.

"Transmissions from inanimate objects is theoretical but extraordinarily low," says Dr. Russo. "But, if you rent goggles maybe bring some wipes to wipe them down just to be sure."

If you want to avoid contact even further, take advantage of one of the new rental delivery services like Ski Butlers and Black Tie that bring the gear directly to you.

Limiting the size of group lessons: Physical distancing during group ski lessons can be a challenge. "Often the ski instructor when someone is struggling and a beginner is falling will be involved in helping them up, and those are the sort of close-quarter activities that we'd really like to avoid," says Dr. Russo. "Just make sure people are well spaced." Indeed, ski areas are reducing the size of group lessons this year, and some programs, including the Alf Engen Ski School at Alta, are currently only offering private lessons.

Check the details before you go: If you're planning to take a lesson at any resort this year advance reservations may be required since walk-up registration has been discontinued at many mountains. Vail's Ski & Ride School is also asking students to take an online self-health screening before arriving for their lesson.

Changing the food and drink scene on the mountain and throughout the resort: "I think the real danger zone is in the indoor dining and drinking areas," Dr. Russo says. "Maybe going indoors and distancing and warming up your toes is fine, but if you're going to be eating and drinking with your mask down, you're definitely going to increase your risk—and in a lot of these old ski chalets and lodges I'm sure the ventilation isn't great either; the concept is to try to keep the heat in."

One answer to that problem is grab-and-go dining, and most resorts have increased their offerings. Aspen Snowmass has also added a new system of online ordering for skiers to schedule a contact-free, mid-mountain meal pick-up from a variety of resort restaurants.

Vail has limited capacity in their restaurants to ensure physical distancing, added ready-to-go meals, streamlined cafeteria-style lines, and introduced a resort-wide cashless purchase process. A "Time to Dine" mealtime reservation service, offered at some of their mountain restaurants, is intended to discourage overcrowding during peak eating times.

Fortunately, most ski areas offer plenty of outdoor seating for rest and dining. Innovative solutions like Steamboat's roving Taco Beast and Pizza Ranger deliver hot food right to the slopes by snowcat. And this year resorts are also encouraging visitors to bring their own water, snacks, and meals from home.

The usual après-ski scene will be completely transformed this season as well, since guests are discouraged from mingling indoors in large groups. Some resorts, including Utah's Deer Valley, are expanding outdoor seating areas and adding heaters or fire pits to keep guests warm. Vail Resorts will offer packaged beer and wine, but they'll have no full-service bars this year.

ski lift
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Is skiing safe during COVID-19?

So, do all of these new changes actually mean that skiing is safe? Dr. Russo estimates that skiing would fall into the lowest risk category if guests physically distance, wear face masks, and avoid enclosed gondolas/trams or going indoors. "I perceive those two venues as the greatest risk," he says. "What makes me nervous about downhill skiing is the temptation to go inside and warm up and eat and drink is going to be high."

Because of its solitary nature, Dr. Russo points to the relative safety of cross-country skiing for people who might like to try that physically distanced alternative this year. He also notes that cross-country skiers also generate a lot of heat while they're moving, so the need to warm up indoors is less urgent.

For those who venture to the top of the mountains wearing a mask, what's the risk of COVID-19 exposure during the actual act of downhill skiing or snowboarding? "It seems to me that actually on the slopes themselves that's got to be close to zero," Dr. Russo says. So, in the end, the safest part of the day may be the part we all love the most anyway: Gliding down a run, alone in the fresh mountain air.

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