CHICAGO — It’s spring break, and the snowy slopes are calling your Zoom-fried name. Can you safely hit a piste of your choice?
The industry had an early awakening to the dangers of the pandemic, with many resorts (including beautiful Aspen, Colo.) hard-hit a year ago and some upscale European locations widely viewed as having seeded outbreaks across the continent as infected skiers returned home after their spring and Easter vacations. While skiing is an outdoor activity, generally regarded as safer, the leading resorts’ famed “apres ski” attractions, known for their animated, boisterous crowds, both thirsty and ebullient after a day on the slopes, turned out to be prime locations last spring for spreading the COVID-19 virus.
Ski resorts are in much better shape than this time last year, when most of them were abruptly forced to close. But in no way have we fully returned to the heady slopes of 2019.
In 2021, it is all about the ski, not so much the apres.
Skiing, the ultimate release from your basement, is certainly on many people’s agendas. The home-rental agency Vacasa, for example, says that spring bookings are way up year over year at such prime Colorado ski destinations as Steamboat Springs.
And the big ski resorts are, of course, encouraging visitors by emphasizing the healthy aspects of skiing: “A mountain vacation that takes place mostly outside has been documented as a low-risk activity in terms of virus transmission,” says one statement from Colorado’s Winter Park Resort.
“While there is much out of our control,” goes the marketing pitch on the resort’s website, “there are things we can do every day to help ensure that we are able to continue tapping into the real and unvarnished Colorado mountain culture and adventures. Together let’s work to shred another day.”
Given that life is short, shredding another day is an unusual appeal. But, given the past year, perhaps a savvy choice.
And as airlines have pivoted to leisure destinations in the face of the huge drop-off in business travel, it is actually easier to find your way out there from cities like Chicago. (Don’t expect bargain airfares though; many flights over the next few weeks are close to full and priced at prepandemic levels).
On March 11, United Airlines began a new, single-ticket, plane-and-bus service to Breckenridge, and on April 1, the Chicago-based airline will start a similar four-times daily service to Fort Collins. The actual flights end at Denver International Airport, but from there (while still airside at the airport), you can immediately board a luxury bus (operated by Landline) connecting straight to the resorts, with your luggage directly transferred to the bus by the airline, hassle-free to you (at least in theory).
Landline says the bus service will have spacious leather seating, onboard streaming entertainment and free Wi-Fi. The bus operator will require masks, as on flights, and the last part of your trip will feature a similarly high-quality air-filtration system and will operate at reduced seating capacity to ensure social distancing on board (which is more than you can say for the plane). On the way home, though, you’ll still have to get out at departures and go through the decidedly nonluxurious security line at Denver International Airport.
If the Steamboat Ski Resort is your destination, since December you have been able to connect through Denver on Southwest Airlines, which flies to Colorado several times a day from its hub at Chicago’s Midway Airport. The new Southwest service flies into the Yampa Valley Regional Airport three times a day. Southwest also has begun flying from Denver to Montrose Regional Airport, a scenic 65 miles way from Telluride. Both of these Southwest services now have been extended deep into the spring.
That’s partly because the 2021 ski season in some places is turning out to be longer than usual. At Breckenridge (or “Breck” if you want to sound cool), skiers are expected to find at least some pliable powder through as late as May 31, a consequence of the resort’s high elevation (its base is 9,600 feet above sea level) and the plentiful spring snows.
Many resorts have added new COVID-19 protocols, as you might expect. In Steamboat Springs, for example, you don’t have to wait in a lengthy line for a chairlift; you can register online and then stay warm and cozy until your turn arrives.
The need for reservations hardly is new at peak times like spring break at big resorts, especially if you are going for just a day or two. But the levels of restriction this year show some variance, especially for long-term pass holders. Park City Mountain Resort in Utah, for example, requires reservations even for pass holders, whereas the high-end Deer Valley Ski Resort lets members of that group ski when they wish. Winter Park also emphasizes the need for advance planning and reservations, given the reduced capacities, and cautions that many days on the lifts already are sold out.
In Pitkin County, Colo., the home of the top-drawer ski resorts in and around Aspen, the press-time governmental restriction level was “yellow” (or “caution”), meaning that restaurants, retail outlets and personal services in the charming downtown are restricted to no more than 50% of capacity, indoors and outdoors, for the most part. The same is true of “outdoor guided services” and other such adventures in deluxe ski country, potentially causing some disappointments in peak weeks.
The Pitkin County authorities forbid (again, at press time) gatherings of more than 10 people from more than two households; so multifamily tables of a dozen or more are not allowed. However, on March 5, the county ended its requirement for either a negative test or an affidavit prior to visiting the area. Also on the plus side, many resorts, including Winter Park, are offering more generous cancellation and change policies for accommodations, lift tickets and the like. The same, of course, remains true of the airlines.
But bars remain closed in Aspen.
Many Colorado resorts, such as the Vail Mountain Resort, have taken the opportunity to go cashless. And the Aspen Ski Co. says it still suggests “preordering meals and taking advantage of expanded outdoor seating on decks, in open air tents and in public spaces for dining.”
Of course, communing with the great outdoors is a key part of the appeal of a ski vacation as you shred another day.
Hopefully having fun in the process.