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Skis and snowboards at the base of Vail Mountain's Eagle Bahn gondola on December 18, 2019. The state is seeking public input on pandemic protocols and safety measures for ski resorts for the upcoming season. (Andy Colwell, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Colorado’s public health officials have released a list of guidelines for Colorado ski areas heading into the winter season and they look a lot like operating plans already announced by resorts. 

The guidance for Colorado ski areas  “establish some new baseline standards to create common expectations” for resorts, reads the report the state released Wednesday. The state is gathering public input on the plan through Friday morning. 

Ski areas must work with their local public health agency to craft plans that limit the spread of COVID-19 and those local agencies will submit the plan to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for final approval. There is a hiccup in the plan though, with uncertainty around a call for resorts and communities to make a plan for “isolation housing” for visitors who fall ill and cannot travel back home.


The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.


Jeff Hanle with Aspen Skiing Co. said the four-resort operator feels the guidance plan “is a largely thoughtful, reasonable and achievable set of guidelines” and the cooperative effort between the state, ski industry and local health officials “maximize our chances for a safe and full season.”

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

Melanie Mills with Colorado Ski Country said finalizing the guidance “is an important first step” as resorts script their own operating plans and “sets the stage for a long, successful ski season from a ski industry, public health and local community perspective.”

Mills’ advice for Colorado skiers this season takes a page from the avalanche awareness playbook, which urges everyone to “Know Before You Go.” Mill said everyone visiting Colorado’s resort communities should check ski area websites and for updates on COVID-related policies and guest responsibilities. 

Here is a sketch of the guidance, which is not unlike the guidelines the state provided to other public-facing industries like restaurants, hotels and bars. 

The state wants ski areas to broadly trumpet COVID-19 requirements on websites and reservation booking sites, as well as at entrances to hotels and resort buildings. 

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Masks will be required indoors and in outdoor public places, with exceptions for outdoor dining and outdoor activities. Social distancing, limiting group sizes, urging people who feel sick to stay home, regular cleaning, and screening for symptoms are part of the procedures that ski areas should adopt to meet state guidelines. 

Resorts must share with visitors where their county is ranked on the state’s COVID-19 status dashboard, which can limit the size of gatherings and more. 

Chairlifts and gondolas will only be for parties together and unrelated riders will need to be one seat apart. Gondola windows will remain open, even in blustery weather. 

“Consider the typical volume of visitors, and whether crowd volume management tactics (such as reservations, congestion-based pricing, and/or remote ticket sales) are needed to successfully implement social distancing,” reads the draft guidance report. (Vail Resorts is requiring reservations for the upcoming ski season, where Aspen Skiing Co. is offering weekday passes for locals. Other resorts are tinkering with pricing and pass products that will help control the flow of skier traffic.)

Ski school groups will be limited to 10 people, not including instructors. Instructors and students 11 years old or older will need to wear masks. And students in ski school should be urged to self monitor for symptoms before attending a lesson. 

Skiers line up to get on a lift at Arapahoe Basin on May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

While Colorado’s ski areas rarely see shelter-in-place orders that prevent skiers from venturing outside of resort buildings — which does happen in avalanche prone areas like Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon — the state guidance requires resorts to have a plan for gathering contact information for guests and staff who shelter together during “an emergency or extreme weather event” so everyone can be reached for tracing. 

Resorts should provide COVID-19 protocol training to all employees and group workers in teams for the season to limit mixing between different cohorts. 

Other operational recommendations include:

  • Maximizing ventilation in resort buildings by leaving windows open regardless of weather.
  • Increasing base-area drop-off points for guests, so drivers can be the only visitor using a shuttle from the parking lot to the lifts. 
  • Expanding outdoor seating for restaurants, so expect to see swaths of socially-distanced tables spilling from patios.
  • Disabling air dryers in restrooms and providing portable toilets at base areas to reduce indoor congestion.  
  • Providing “generous and flexible” cancellation policies at hotels and offering no-contact check-in procedures. 

One of the stickier points in managing the spread in resort vacation lands involves what to do when a guest falls ill during their stay and can’t leave. 

The guidance suggests that resorts work with local health officials and the local community “in any community-wide efforts to create opportunities for guests to safely isolate and quarantine in the event they test positive during their stay and cannot travel without disrupting upcoming bookings.”

It’s unclear what “isolation housing” might look like for tourists. Could specific hotels be set aside for quarantine? 

That happened in the spring. Some hotels around resort communities were accommodating stranded travelers and first-responders who needed to quarantine when the pandemic raged in the high country and everything shut down. How that might look when the winter tourism season is in full swing remains unseen. And no one seems to have an answer. Calls to local businesses, ski industry industry insiders and health officials yielded uncertainty about what “isolation housing” might look like for resort visitors. 

A snowboarder wearing a medical masks at Arapahoe Basin on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I look forward to learning more about this,” said Chris Romer with the Vail Valley Partnership. 

Mills said discussion is ongoing on how isolation housing and quarantines for visitors might work in resort communities. 

“We have more work to do on that one with a broad group of stakeholders,” Mills said.

It’s a little easier to understand when it comes to worker housing. The guidance does ask resorts to “maintain isolation housing” where employees who test positive can quarantine. The state guidance says “congregate housing is one of the biggest transmission risk factors” and urges resorts to follow Center for Disease Control guidelines for dense housing and suggests resorts align teams of employees who work together in housing “to reduce the number of people exposed in an outbreak.”

Jason Blevins

The Colorado Sun — Email: Twitter: @jasonblevins