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Safety and stoke: A-Basin’s coronavirus reopening provides glimpse of what next ski season may look like

The snow was soft, the sun was shining and the lift lines were short. Besides mask-wearing and social distancing, it felt like a normal day of late spring skiing.

A snowboarder wearing a medical mask heads down a slope at Arapahoe Basin on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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ARAPAHOE BASIN — There are a lot of words to describe skiing and snowboarding. “Moral” and “victory” are not usually among them. 

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But that’s how the staff at Arapahoe Basin Ski Area talked about reopening Wednesday after being shuttered for more than two months because of the coronavirus crisis.

“This is a moral victory,” said Katherine Fuller, a spokeswoman for the Summit County ski area, the only resort currently open in Colorado. “Financially, it’s really not (impactful). We took a big hit over the last two and a half months, and this really isn’t going to make any of that up. For us, it’s being able to get some people back to work, get some people skiing and riding again.”

Yes, only 600 people with reservations were allowed on the mountain and they had to wear masks and keep their distance from each other. And yes, A-Basin was not its normal, lively and festive self. 

But the return of skiing and snowboarding in Colorado represents the promise of better days ahead as the state’s tourism industry continues reeling from the impacts of the pandemic. The reopening could also provide a roadmap for resorts across the state as they look toward the 2020-21 season and recoup some of their losses even with the pandemic still underway. 

“This is a big experiment in a lot of ways,” Fuller said. “There’s no precedent for this. We’re going to learn a lot from this experience.”

Lift lines at Arapahoe Basin on Wednesday, May 27, 2020, were monitored to ensure people were social distancing. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Skiing has been shut down in Colorado since mid-March, when Gov. Jared Polis ordered closures to help keep COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, from spreading out of control. He said it was one of the toughest decisions he’s made given how skiing and snowboarding are such a large part of the state’s identity and economy. 

While cheering A-Basin’s reopening this week, Polis sought to temper expectations.

“If anybody’s been to A-Basin on a normal June skiing day or May skiing day, you know it’s a partylike environment at the base and even on the mountains. That’s not what this is,” Polis said. “If you’re in it for the actual skiing, this could be for you. If you’re in it for the party and keggy keggers and hanging out and dancing, now is not the time.”

Maybe it was the fact that they were among the first people in the U.S. skiing at a resort since the coronavirus pandemic began raging, but the people at the ski area on Wednesday were more than happy to be on the slopes. They didn’t seem to mind the lack of keggy keggers. 

(We’re not sure what the governor meant by keggy keggers, but tailgating and beer drinking are time-honored A-Basin traditions.)

A skier jumps off a lip at Arapahoe Basin on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“It’s been great,” Cara Pocano, a 25-year-old from Denver, said as she stood on the mountain’s windy summit. “It’s not crowded. It’s beautiful out here.”

Despite the deadly coronavirus threat, Wednesday at A-Basin felt like a typical late spring day on the mountain. The snow was slushy, the lines were basically nonexistent and the sun was shining bright.

“It’s nice to keep the season going after the lost hope of the season being ended,” said Eric Macaluso of Silverthorne, a 49-year-old who was skiing in shorts Wednesday. “As long as we are being safe out here and everyone can have fun, why not? Let’s do it.”

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Macaluso said he felt safe from the virus on the mountain — or at least safer than he does in a grocery store. 

To reduce the chances of spreading the illness betweens skiers, A-Basin is limiting chairlifts to single passengers or groups of people who traveled to the mountain together. Lift lines have signs telling people where to stand. The lodges, except for the restrooms, are shut down, and there are no ski or snowboard rental shops open. Beginners have been told to stay away.

A masked Arapahoe Basin employee scans tickets on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

A few people who showed up without reservations were turned away, but for the most part Wednesday went smoothly. 

“Everybody is cooperating. Everybody is stoked,” said Fuller, the spokeswoman. “People are following the rules. People are wearing their masks.” 

The demand for the limited reservations has been intense. When A-Basin opened up the online system to allow people to sign up, so many logged on at the same time that it crashed.

“We knew it was going to be a lot of people and so we set the system up to be for a lot of people,” Fuller said. “And it was even more than a lot of people.” 

The ski area switched to a lottery instead. Ban Ping, a 25-year-old from Denver, was lucky enough to snag a reservation, though three of her friends were not. 

She said if the reservation system continues into next ski season, she may rethink dropping hundreds of dollars on a pass. “I’m a little hesitant.” 

A-Basin will allow skiers and snowboarders on its slopes for as long as it can, which in years past has been July 4 or later. Until it closes because of snowmelt, the resort will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. seven days a week.

About 20 runs are open, with three lifts serving them.

A skier wearing a medical mask gets on a lift Wednesday, May 27, 2020, at Arapahoe Basin ski area. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

For some, being back on the slopes is about more than just exercise and adventure.

“It’s saving my life,” said Nick Manely, of Arvada. “Prolonging it. Keeping me in a good frame of mind.”

Manely, 63, has a neuromuscular disease, and he finds skiing therapeutic, physically and psychologically. His trip to A-Basin on Wednesday was one of his first times out of the house since the coronavirus crisis began.

“I just wanted to get out in nature and feel the mountain’s energy again,” he said. 

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