Vermont aims to reopen for ski season while keeping COVID-19 cases low

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Few states have fared as well during the coronavirus pandemic as Vermont, where a combination of aggressive shutdown measures and a deliberately slow reopening has held cases and deaths far below those in neighboring states.

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But now comes ski season.

Vermont’s economy depends on reopening its crucial tourist industry this winter, even though that will mean letting in skiers from states still ravaged by the virus.

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The state remains an outlier in its success combating the virus, though cases have increased in recent days. Vermont’s COVID-19 death toll remains at 58, the lowest of any state. It hasn’t recorded a death from the disease since Aug. 6, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

How to reopen safely is a challenge consuming government officials, ski resort managers and the scores of other businesses whose livelihoods depend on winter tourism.

“Can it be pulled off successfully and as safely as possible?” said Adam White, communications director of the Vermont Ski Areas Association. “That is the $1.6 billion question.”

At Bolton Valley Resort, about 30 minutes from Burlington, the staff is working to reconfigure everything from ski rentals to lift-ticket sales to reduce face-to-face contact between skiers and staff, and to move operations outdoors.

The family-owned resort, which closed its hotel over the summer when revenue plummeted, has spent more than $100,000 on technological upgrades to enable more online transactions, said Lindsay DesLauriers, the resort’s president. Bolton Valley aims to sell 90% of its lift tickets online this season, compared with 30% last year.

“It’s really forcing us to act like a big guy,” DesLauriers said of the investments. “But it’s necessary. We can’t have lines anymore. We can’t have people clustering inside anymore.”

The big guys are hurting, too. Vail Resorts Inc., which owns ski areas around the country, including Stowe, Okemo and Mount Snow in Vermont, reported $98.8 million in net income in its 2020 fiscal year, a drop of more than 67% from a year earlier. In May, the company issued $600 million in debt. Vail has enough cash to fund operations through the 2021-22 ski season “even in the event of extended resort shutdowns,” the company’s chief financial officer told investors in September.

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Ski resorts are also trying to prepare customers for the state’s stringent health protocols. Similar to resorts in other states, ski areas will require masks indoors and outdoors, and ban sharing of lift seats with strangers.

Vermont has also imposed quarantine requirements for incoming travelers, which vary based on a number of factors, including infection rates in the visitor’s home county and their mode of transportation into Vermont.

The state has already received hundreds of thousands of hits on its color-coded online travel map, which advises out-of-state travelers about the precautions they will be required to take, said Ted Brady, deputy secretary of the state Agency of Commerce and Community Development.

The map currently shows a sea of red across much of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic where infections have ticked above 800 per 1 million residents.

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White said he gets two dozen calls a week from would-be skiers asking if the travel restrictions are real, and complaining about the inconvenience.

“But the answer is we want to have a season,” he said, “And we want to keep not only guests as healthy as possible, but employees at ski areas, too. Vermont doesn’t have a health system of a scale to handle a widespread outbreak. Anything even resembling an outbreak here could be catastrophic.”

From Sept. 1 through Nov. 4, the total number of confirmed cases in Vermont has risen more than 38%, to 2,267. The average daily increase in Vermont’s new coronavirus cases was flat over the past seven days compared with the past two weeks, but in most other states, the rate was increasing—a sign that infections are rising.

State officials and businesspeople like DesLauriers expect travel restrictions, and fears of the virus, to have a harsh effect on hotels and food and beverage services—especially ski lodges and apres-ski bars and restaurants, where traditional end-of-day carousing will be prohibited to prevent outbreaks of the virus.

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“There’s no way to pencil out a good outcome in lodging and food and beverage this year,” DesLauriers said. “I’m hoping that I’m proven wrong.”

Demand for lift tickets at resorts large and small in the state has industry leaders expecting a surge of skiers on the slopes. Mad River Glen temporarily suspended season-pass sales this fall because of surging demand. Vail reported an 18% increase in season passes sold through mid-September, though sales revenue fell as skiers redeemed credits for the previous year’s shortened season.

Andy Kingston and his wife own the Alpine Shop, a landmark outdoor gear shop in South Burlington that saw revenue plummet 50% when businesses closed in March, the waning weeks of last year’s season.

“We’re used to having uncertainty—that’s part of our DNA,” Mr. Kingston said, but the conversations leading up to this season’s start haven’t been about snowpack, but about the possibility of an outbreak. “I can’t recall over the last four or five months anyone wanting to know what the snow condition is going to be like. And that’s usually the first thing we’d be talking about.”

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