There will be no guests filling their own paper trays with towering stacks of fries, and lift lines will be a bit longer than normal this season at Pebble Creek Ski Area in Inkom.
Several operational changes will be implemented at Pebble Creek and other Idaho ski areas to limit the potential for transmission of COVID-19.
In addition to preventing guests from stacking their own fries in the dining area, guest services manager Dana Kmetz said Pebble will limit capacity in the lodge and won’t enforce its usual policy of making certain all seats are filled on each chairlift to keep lift lines short. Furthermore, staff and guests will all be required to wear facial coverings.
But Kmetz is optimistic the minor changes should be sufficient to keep the local ski area operating throughout the season and that the coronavirus won’t deal Southeast Idaho winter sports enthusiasts an early closing date. Pebble Creek closed 11 days early last season due to COVID-19.
“We’re pretty confident this is going to hold for the season,” Kmetz said. “We’ve been in close contact with the National Ski Area Association as well as the local health district, and we’ve come up with a pretty solid plan.”
Kmetz noted that a typical set of adult skis is about 6 feet long, which should help with social distancing in lift lines, and she said families will be encouraged to ride the lifts alone. Since most skiers snowboarders wear scarves, ski masks or balaclavas, she doubts the mask requirement will pose much of a hassle.
To minimize early season crowds in the ticket office, Kmetz said season pass holders will be encouraged to get their passes printed prior to the season. Pebble Creek regulars may get their season passes printed early on Nov. 27 and Nov. 28 at Barrie’s Ski & Sports, on Dec. 5 at the Yellowstone Restaurant and on Dec. 6 at Jim Dandy Brewing.
Prices of season passes are currently $480 for adults, $405 for youth and seniors and $335 for children, but pass prices will go up on Nov. 1. People can print a liability waiver form early by clicking on a link on the Pebble Creek website to expedite getting a season pass printed.
Kmetz said Pebble Creek plans to have hiring and staff training concluded in time for a Dec. 11 opening, contingent on an adequate snowpack. Improvements to the mountain this offseason were focused on the beginners’ hill, accessed by the Aspen lift. The ski area has increased water capacity for snow making on its First Timer Road area and has installed new lighting on the area for expanded night skiing.
Officials with resorts throughout Idaho say skiers and snowboarders should expect differences such as limited indoor seating, longer lift lines to allow spacing, fewer people on lifts and trams and limits on total numbers at the resort.
“It would be tough to find a safer outdoor space than on a chairlift,” said Brad Wilson president of the Idaho Ski Areas Association and general manager of Bogus Basin resort.
Ski resorts are focusing on keeping people away from each other as much as possible and mandating masks or face coverings. For example, putting strangers together on chairlifts will be taboo.
“We definitely put some protocols in place to keep everyone safe,” said Jennie White, director of marketing at Grand Targhee Resort. “The big change this year is that we’re limiting access and capacity inside our buildings.”
White said they plan to have a host monitoring how many people enter its restaurant for grab-and-go meals. Capacity inside will be trimmed to 50%. To help feed hungry skiers and snowboarders, Targhee bought a food truck to be parked outside.
“We did buy a food truck so we’ll have another outdoor grab-and-go option,” White said. “It will be out near the Trap (Bar & Grill) deck. It will be a food truck that serves tacos, fries. That’s kind of a fun new thing.”
Wilson said skiers’ cars may become a safe, warm option to the lack of indoor seating. Grand Targhee is installing new outdoor seating options.
“We’ve purchased some more outdoor heaters and fire pits,” White said. “It is winter, and it will be cold. So dress appropriately, and be prepared to be outside and not be able to warm up inside because that’s the place where we have to limit time spent inside.”
Other area ski resorts, such as Kelly Canyon Ski Resort, are also making adjustments to food distribution and lift-line operations.
“Food and beverages are probably the biggest area we have to deal with,” said Dave Stoddard, Kelly Canyon Ski Resort co-owner. “We’re making adjustments to spread things out. We’ll make some more space available. We’ll come up with a way to order food in advance and be able to come in and pick it up, like the grab-and-go arrangements we’ve seen with other food and beverage facilities in the area.”
To help thin lines down, several resorts plan to offer phone ordering for food and lift tickets as well as information on mountain conditions, parking, shuttles and signing waivers.
“They can sign up for text messages to know what’s happening in real time,” White said of Grand Targhee’s new system. “We did have a text message in recent years but it was just to tell people if we had 6 inches of new snow. This year we went with a different company, and it’s a more robust program. We’re making more lists for people to sign up to know what’s happening.”
White said Grand Targhee’s parking is its main limiter of how many people are on the mountain. To help the situation, the resort plans to post electronic signs north of Driggs and south of Driggs and two more on Ski Hill Road announcing up-to-minute parking availability. The resort also bought three larger shuttle buses for hauling customers.
Jackson Hole Mountain Resort has implemented new protocols for chairlifts, gondolas and its aerial tram starting with “maze configuration” to maximize physical distancing in its lines.
“Guests should expect longer wait times, especially on weekends and holiday periods,” the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort said on its website. “Gondola cabins will be loaded according to groups traveling together, households or individuals.”
Stoddard said Kelly Canyon won’t face those types of issues.
“The chairlifts at Kelly Canyon are double chairlifts, so unlike some of the other resorts that have triples or quads or even bigger, we don’t have quite the same problem as far as getting people spread out and going up the mountain,” Stoddard said. “We’ll have them a little more spread out in the lift lines.”
Sun Valley general manager Tim Silva said on his resort webpage that they will “manage peak day access for both Bald Mountain or Dollar Mountain through day-ticket restrictions” if guest numbers make distancing difficult.
Most resorts also plan to limit the size of ski classes and guest services mostly by using a reservation-only system. Snowcat operations at Grand Targhee, for example, will be limited to private bookings. Resorts recommend checking online for specific resort situations.
“The main message is that everyone has to be responsible and know that they need to take part in knowing that they need to maintain their 6-foot distance,” White said. “I don’t think any resort is putting a distance police on anything.”