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Colorado releases COVID-19 guidelines for Aspen and other ski areas

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Colorado ski areas will be required to keep parties in lift lines separated by 6 feet in all directions, limit capacity in gondola cabins and on lift chairs and offer trip cancellation policies that don’t pressure customers into traveling if they are sick, according to general COVID-19 guidelines released by the state government Wednesday.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment provided ski areas with a list of issues that need to be addressed for the 2020-21 season. Ski areas now must finalize their plans, present them to local public health departments for approval and then submit them to the state for endorsement before the season kicks off. The state’s guidelines can be found at the CDPHE website.

Aspen Skiing Co. was already working on its procedures and will finalize a plan for submittal to Pitkin County and the state.

“We are fully committed to adhering to or exceeding all state and local guidelines and are developing robust communications plans for our guests so they can understand our plans,” Skico said Wednesday in a statement. “Our employees, guests and whole community will need to work together to support a safe ski season this year.”

Skico has a plan for social distancing in lift lines and spacing customers on lifts. It will inevitably result in longer lines, perhaps reminiscent of the days before high-speed lifts.

“We are exploring realigned lift mazes that will help manage spacing,” said Jeff Hanle, vice president of communications. “We are also looking at using ghost lanes, essentially empty lanes between open lanes, to maximize spacing. Guests will be required to wear masks. We will also have signage, markings (showing proper spacing) and employee monitoring.”

The state provided guidance on loading gondolas and lifts.

“Ski area guests will not be required to ride on a chairlift or gondola with people outside of their party,” the document said. “Individuals who are not from the same party may ride a chairlift together with a minimum of one seat separating the unrelated individuals or parties; however, ski areas should generally encourage more space between different parties when possible.”

On gondolas, the windows should remain open even in inclement weather, the state said.

The state also urged ski areas to sharpen plans for crowd size management through tactics such as reservations and congestion-based pricing.

Aspen Skiing Co. is using carrots and sticks to manage capacity. It offered financial incentives via a new pass to get people to ski only on weekdays. It also resurrected blackout dates on some season ski passes during the Christmas/New Year’s holiday week and President’s Day weekend.

It’s clear from the state’s guidelines and from what is known at this point from Skico’s procedures that lines will be part of the ski industry this year. Distancing will be required at restaurants, ticket offices and even bathrooms.

Social distancing will drastically reduce indoor seating at restaurants, and outdoor dining obviously isn’t a choice in snowy weather. Skico will erect tents outside of five of its on-mountain restaurants across the four ski areas: Sundeck at Aspen Mountain, Merry Go Round at Aspen Highlands, Cliff House at Buttermilk-Tiehack, Elk Camp and Ullrhof at Snowmass, according to Hanle. Ruthie’s Restaurant at Aspen Mountain, which has been shuttered for years, will be reopened and outfitted with a warming hut.

The state didn’t unveil anything that caught Skico officials off guard on Wednesday.

“We feel this is a largely thoughtful, reasonable and achievable set of guidelines,” Skico’s statement said. “The state worked closely with local health and government agencies and representatives from the ski industry to develop guidance to maximize our chances for a safe and full season.”

Colorado Ski Country USA, a state trade association, also was complimentary of the guidance.

“We appreciate the state’s efforts to work with the industry, local public health officials and counties to craft guidance that sets the stage for a long, successful ski season from a ski industry, public health and local community perspective,” said a statement from CSCUSA president and CEO Melanie Mills. “Finalizing this guidance is an important step as ski areas across the state gear up for ski season and finalize their own area-specific plans for this winter.”

The trade association has embarked on a campaign to urge ski area customers to “Know Before You Go.”

“Visit ski area websites, social media channels or coloradoski.com to understand the most up-to-date COVID-related policies and procedures as well as expectations for guest responsibilities during a visit to a ski area,” the association’s statement said.

One particularly ticklish issue addressed by state guidelines was cancellation policies.

The state guidelines pose these questions: “How will the ski area address cancellation and postponement policies so that guests do not feel pressured to come if they are sick? How will the ski areas communicate to guests that they should reschedule their vacation if they begin to experience any symptoms before traveling?”

Ski areas must also be prepared to scale their operations up or down according to COVID-19 positive tests in their communities, the state guidelines said. “How will the ski area learn from its initial opening and improve protocols based on experience?” the document asked.

Then there’s the big issue of enforcement. The state wants ski areas to address how they will enforce compliance with state and local orders and guidelines by their customers and staff.

While ski buffs are common among skiers and riders, at least when the weather is cooler, the state wants to make sure masks are worn “to the maximum extent practicable in both indoor and outdoor public spaces, ski schools, and while riding chairlifts or gondolas.”


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