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When are Utah ski areas opening and what do you need to know to play during a pandemic?

Alta ski patroller Christal McCrary is lowered to the ground as patroller Randy Hartwig belays her during lift evacuation training at Alta Ski Area in Alta on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.
Alta ski patroller Christal McCrary is lowered to the ground as patroller Randy Hartwig belays her during lift evacuation training at Alta Ski Area in Alta on Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Anticipation for Utah’s upcoming ski season is high, with resorts making meticulous plans during the COVID-19 pandemic to maintain safety on the mountain for visitors and employees alike.

Starting Friday, Park City and Brian Head will be the first of Utah’s 15 ski resorts to welcome winter sports enthusiasts back for another season of the “greatest snow on Earth” after the coronavirus outbreak forced a premature end to last season.

With months to observe how the pandemic took hold of the nation, resort managers have had lots of time to plan how to run their operations effectively while still providing an exceptional environment for patrons to have fun as well as stay safe.

“Our ski areas closed the weekend of March 14 last season resulting in the longest offseason in the history of skiing in Utah,” said Nathan Rafferty, Ski Utah president and CEO. “The upside of that is resorts started preparing for this ski season on Monday, March 16, so we’re as prepared as any (to reopen).”

Speaking during an online panel discussion this week, he said the National Ski Area Association has worked diligently since the pandemic started to create “a playbook” to give resorts nationwide guidelines and standards to follow when they reopen this winter.

“We’ve taken those playbooks and we’ve customized them to individual areas based on the health department and the guidance that we’ve had throughout the state,” said Davy Ratchford, general manager of Snowbasin Resort in Huntsville, Weber County. “In the case of Snowbasin, we presented that several months ago to the health department (and) we got two thumbs up. We can continue to evolve and create new plans and procedures so that we keep our guests safe and our employees safe.”

He said ”the name of the game” is to find ways to effectively run the ski areas while with reduced visitation.

“Some of the ski areas have done things from reservation systems to parking reservations to limit visitation, to paid ticket reduction — which in the case of Snowbasin is what we’re doing,” he said. “Managing the flow as much as possible is key and doing it with the guidelines that we’ve had in place .... socially distancing, wearing masks — everything that we’ve been preaching since March 16 when we closed until today.”

Resorts have thought long and hard about how to provide a positive experience for visitors while keeping safety as a main priority, he said.

“We’ve created multiple slopeside dining options. When you come up, you socially distance to get food and then have your food on the go outside,” Ratchford said. “These are going to be incredibly useful to us not just for this season but beyond. COVID has helped to create an environment of innovation throughout the resort also with the mindset of keeping people safe.”

All Beehive State resorts have instituted strict physical distancing policies, with exceptions only for individuals from the same customer group.

“As far as the lift line, we will have ‘ghost lines,’” explained Alta communications manager Andria Huskinson. “Naturally with skis you’re going to be 6 feet apart from the person in front of you, and then we’ll have ghost lines — where every other line won’t have people in it — that’s how we’re going to keep people safe on the lift.”

Detailed information on safety protocols and accessing Utah ski areas can be found on Ski Utah’s website or on each area’s individual webpage.

All resorts are expecting to operate at reduced capacity this season, due in part to lower-than-usual numbers of vacationers from out of state.

“People are definitely in a wait-and-see pattern,” said Visit Salt Lake communications director Shawn Stinson. “We have a pretty solid promotion going on right now with ‘Salt Lake Bound Freedom Found’ that we have some incentives ski-wise.”

In the package, for a minimum of two nights lodging, customers get two free super passes that are good at any of the four Cottonwood Canyon resorts or you get a $200 Delta voucher, he explained. The incentives have attracted some interest, he said.

“But right now, people are in a bit of a wait-and-see mode, to see how COVID cases shake out and we’re pretty much hearing this throughout the industry and throughout the U.S.,” Stinson said. Resort officials said they think there will be more interest from locals and those within driving distance.

Meanwhile, Utah health experts are imploring area managers and visitors to take every precaution they can to ensure a safe recreational environment.

“So if you look at skiing, it would be considered a relatively low-risk activity,” said Dr. Sankar Swaminathan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Utah Health. “If you follow the precautions, you maintain that distance, which isn’t hard because you’ve already got skis on, you remember to keep your mask on all the time, you stay outside and you minimize the amount of time that you spend in any sort of closed environment. Generally, we consider outdoor activities that don’t require a congregation to be pretty safe.”

But Swaminathan urges individuals to wear masks at all times when around other people to minimize the chance for COVID-19 exposure, even outdoors.

For people excited about the prospect of being on the slopes, either on skis or riding a snowboard, officials advise to plan in advance, since coronavirus has forced a significant change in the way visitors will be able to access resort areas.

“If you are planning to ski this season, the key is to plan ahead,” said Park City Mountain Resort communications manager Jessica Miller. “We’re all working really hard to keep people safe on the mountain and part of that means providing space to physically distance.”

With that in mind, resorts are taking different approaches to how they sell tickets for individual ticket buyers and season pass holders, she said. Many are requiring reservations for lift tickets — including season pass holders — or reserved parking to manage attendance, so checking in with your area of choice in advance will be the best way to ensure you can ski there, she added.

“Plan ahead, get your tickets early, make your reservation if you need to and you’ll have a great time on the mountain,” Miller said.

Utah resort openings

Alta Ski Area: Monday

Beaver Mountain: TBD

Brian Head: Friday

Brighton: TBD

Cherry Peak Resort: TBD

Deer Valley Resort: Dec. 5

Eagle Point: Dec. 18

Nordic Valley: Dec. 4

Park City Mountain: Friday

Powder Mountain: TBD

Snowbasin Resort: Nov. 25

Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort: Nov. 30

Solitude Mountain Resort: TBD

Sundance Mountain Resort: Dec. 4

Woodward Park City: TBD

Source: Ski Utah