As with many things upended by the coronavirus pandemic, this winter’s ski season in Maryland and the surrounding region won’t be the same.
Nearby destinations for Baltimore-area residents like Wisp Resort in Western Maryland and Liberty Mountain and Roundtop Mountain in southern Pennsylvania are all taking virus-related precautions that they say will help keep skiers and snowboarders safe.
All three will require mask-wearing and prioritize pass-holders for mountain access, and the two Pennsylvania resorts will require reservations. All three also will implement physical distancing measures for chairlifts.
But is that enough to mitigate the risk for those hitting the slopes?
The act of skiing itself is quite low risk, said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security. But other common activities at ski resorts — such as indoor dining and sharing cabins with others — markedly increase that risk, she said.
“It’s not the skiing that’s the problem,” Sell said. “It’s whatever you do along with it. If you were to just have your family stay in the lodge, order in, go up to the slopes with your masks on and wouldn’t mix with anyone else, I don’t think that situation is high-risk. But there are a lot of people who aren’t going to be doing that situation. And then it becomes more of a problem.”
The World Health Organization’s emergencies chief expressed a similar sentiment at a briefing Monday.
“I suspect many people won’t be infected barreling down the slopes on their skis,” Dr. Michael Ryan said. “The real issues are going to come at airports, tour buses taking people to and from ski resorts, ski lifts … and places where people come together.”
Maryland has seen an avalanche of new coronavirus cases in recent weeks, and hospitalizations have more than quadrupled since early October. Gov. Larry Hogan has tightened some virus-related restrictions in recent weeks as cases and hospitalizations have surged, with some hospitals reaching capacity.
And Garrett County, home to Wisp, has seen a particularly large spike. The county has one of the state’s highest seven-day average rate of new daily cases per 100,000 residents, at 100.94 as of Wednesday’s data. The statewide average rate was 35.97.
If cases continue to rise as they are now, Sell doesn’t think a ski trip is safe when factoring potential group and/or indoor interactions without masks. Experts also have urged people to avoid travel as another wave of the virus surges.
“If we had a controlled situation where we’re getting the transmission back under control like we did in the early part of fall this year, then you would say it would be more reasonable,” Sell said. “But we’re in for a couple very tough months. Anything in which people are inside without masks on in groups is pretty high risk.”
The Garrett County Health Department is “obviously” concerned about the influx of visitors to the community, said Bob Stephens, the county’s health officer. However, Wisp has been “very proactive” in its measures, he said, and that the health department inspects and licenses much of their operation.
“The plans submitted are very extensive, and we are hopeful the impact will be minimal,” Stephens said.
Still, he advised visitors to ski at off-peak times.
During peak tourism season at Deep Creek Lake in the summer, Garrett County had very low case rates, he said. He attributed the current surge in the area to family gatherings, bars, religious services and workplaces without enough personal protective equipment.
Both Adams and York counties in Pennsylvania, home to Liberty Mountain and Roundtop, respectively, have seen cases rise in recent weeks, according to data compiled by Spotlight Pennsylvania. That state’s seven-day average of newly reported cases has spiked from about 2,800 in early November to more than 6,000 as of Monday, according to data from the Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus resource center.
Pennsylvania tightened capacity restrictions on outdoor gatherings last week, including outdoor events, but those new restrictions will not apply to skiing or ski resorts, said Lyndsay Kensinger, spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf. Indoor restaurants and bars in the state have capacity restrictions and the state has implemented a mask mandate.
Pennsylvania recently implemented an order requiring out-of-state travelers and state residents to have a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 14 days upon coming into the state, unless they get a negative test during the quarantine.
Scott French of Towson, who runs Hampton Ski Club, said those travel restrictions may make it difficult for Marylanders to ski in Pennsylvania.
“Based on how hard it is to get tested and get results, I don’t see how skiing would be possible for those of us who go with our passes several times a week,” French said.
In Maryland, statewide occupancy requirements will apply indoors at ski resorts said Mike Ricci, a spokesman for Hogan, a Republican.
Michael Citrano, a resident of Fallston, said he is considering going to Wintergreen Resort in Virginia with his wife and parents in January or February, but he’s concerned about high positivity rates in that state.
Virginia’s latest seven-day positivity rate was 8.8% as of Thursday afternoon, while Maryland’s was 7.68%.
He has his sights on Wintergreen because it is usually less crowded than places like Liberty and Roundtop, Citrano said. He hopes to go midweek to avoid large crowds that could be more conducive to spreading the virus.
“The hardest part for me will be trying to figure out if I think a certain lift is safe or not,” Citrano said. “Usually during weekdays there, at the black diamond lifts you can get on a chair by yourself and not have to sit next to someone.”
Area resorts say they have worked hard to create a safe environment for visitors.
“We want all of our guests to have peace of mind knowing that we’re doing all we can to give them a safe and enjoyable experience, no matter what day they choose to visit,” said Jamie Storrs, a spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, which runs both Liberty and Roundtop in Pennsylvania.
Mask requirements are at the forefront for Liberty, Roundtop and Wisp: Face coverings will be required to get on the mountain and in indoor spaces.
“Skiing and snowboarding itself is already an already established safer environment because we all wear gloves, [and] most of us have face coverings because it’s always going be cold out or snowing out,” said Lori Zaloga, a spokeswoman for Pacific Group Resorts, the parent of both Wisp and Wintergreen resorts. “So you have most of any skin exposed, already covered up. It’s already a naturally safer environment.”
At Wisp, the resort will do “everything possible and practical” for physical distancing, including managing the flow of patrons on the slopes, according to a September letter from general manager Ron Hawkes.
There will be an empty “ghost lane” in lift line corrals and mazes to maintain distancing, the resort’s guidelines say.
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At Liberty and Roundtop, only guests skiing or riding together will be allowed together on chairlifts, or two unrelated individuals on opposite sides of a four-person lift, according to their guidelines.
All resorts warned that the new protocols might make some lines longer.
But the biggest difference may come inside.
Wisp will introduce an online food ordering system to avoid lines inside, Zaloga said. The two Pennsylvania resorts will regulate the numbers of people coming in to restaurants to maintain distancing.
Wisp will only offer equipment rental with online reservations ahead of time, with pickup and drop-off potentially being modified to allow for distancing. No reservations will be required for rentals at Liberty and Roundtop, but the rentals will have “enhanced cleaning” and a setup to allow for distancing.
Nicole Christian, president and CEO of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, said that the county has seen increased tourism demand during the pandemic, which she thinks will continue through the winter. But demand for the resort will be largely weather-dependent, she said. Local lodges have seen more bookings for the winter so far than the previous year, she said.
“We never know what Mother Nature is going to throw at us for cold weather or natural snow and how much terrain we’re going to have open,” Zaloga said. “So depending on how much terrain we’ll have open will probably determine how many skiers we can accommodate on any day. … At this point, if we are able to have all of our trails open, we don’t anticipate any restrictions on the hill.”