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A ski instructor is seen walking along the base of Whistler Mountain in Whistler, B.C., on March 15, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Opening day at North American ski resorts may be months away, but many are already puzzling out how to safely reopen before a COVID-19 vaccine is available.

“We are guardedly optimistic that we can open next winter,” says Rusty Gregory, CEO of Alterra Mountain Company, which partners with Blue Mountain in Ontario and Mont Tremblant in Quebec. “Will we be able to invite everyone back for a full day of skiing before the vaccine? I don’t know yet, we have to figure out the volumes we can handle.”

Restricting access to resorts may be one option to ensure physical distancing, but it’s too early to tell, says Christopher Nicolson, president and CEO of the non-profit Canada West Ski Areas Association. “Health authorities agree that being outside is a good thing both physically and mentally, but there are responsibilities on [resorts]. … We need to ensure safer and responsible ways of interacting.”

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A physically distanced ski resort demands many changes to meet public health requirements, everything from longer, spaced-out lift lines, since fewer people can ride gondolas and chair lifts together, to reduced seating at restaurants. There’s a long list of worries: “Does a toilet facility need to be scrubbed down after each use or at end of the day? What’s the impact of that on our staffing? How will the line to the restroom look? ... All of it is solvable but it’s a fairly mind-numbing exercise to go through it all,” Gregory says.

An empty restaurant patio in Whistler, B.C.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

North American ski resorts shut down in mid March, one of the most profitable months for the industry, when families turn up in droves on their spring breaks. In a report released days after the March 15 shutdown, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz predicted the early close cost the company between US$180-million to US$200-million.

While many resorts across the country are still working out how to open up for summertime hiking and biking use, the focus is also on getting back to business for next season – albeit carefully. Many of the 92 lift-serviced ski areas in Western Canada are major employers in their communities, and the ski industry generates $2-billion for the economy in the west, Nicolson says. Economically and socially, the ski industry is the “core fabric of winter in many small communities,” he adds.

At this time of year, ski resorts work hard to lock down their customers’ commitment for next season. But how can you sell season passes, a major revenue driver for the industry, when a global pandemic has snuffed out leisure travel altogether?

“The biggest thing that we can do as a company and as an industry is provide assurance,” Johnna Muscente, director of communications at Vail Resorts, says. “We need to provide our guests time and flexibility to their travel plans, and keep their health and well-being at top of mind.”

Both Epic and IKON passes – the big players in the industry that offer discounted ski days at resorts across the continent and overseas – are granting credit for unused days last season and both have extended discounted-purchase deadlines, amongst several other perks, to try to lock in skiers’ commitment for the season ahead.

Every skier looks forward to the new season but buying in completely is a harder sell this year. Continued travel restrictions will mean that IKON and Epic pass holders won’t be able to ski at all those alluring, bucket-list destination resorts the passes make available.

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A dog walks through a deserted Creekside in Whistler, B.C., on March 15, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

“There will be less travelling on passes and more use locally,” Gregory says, adding, “The bargain of these big passes is they are priced reasonably for those who want to go skiing multiple times.” To please the local market, Vail’s Muscente points out that a new Whistler-Blackcomb pass will be offered for the 20/21 season, and sold in Canadian dollars, unlike the company’s other pass products.

Ski season has always begun in late fall, when flu season is also kicking off, but this year the stakes are higher. If a subsequent wave of COVID-19 arrives at the same time “that’s a doom and gloom scenario” for the industry and the public, says Ski Canada Magazine editor Iain MacMillan. And yet he doubts that will stop skiers, who “are already risk takers.”

“They are so keen to do what they love,” he says.

Gregory agrees it won’t be hard to get skiers back into the mountains. “Skiing is a pursuit of passion,” he says. Getting out into nature is “where people find the best version of themselves. … During good times and bad times – that’s what people dream about.”

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