A Major US Destination Resort Implements Its Virus Plan. Here’s An Early Report Card.

Line up for the Silver Queen gondola at Aspen. Credit: Evelyn Kanter

The biggest challenge ski/snowboard resorts face this season just may be lunch.

Covid-19 restrictions limit lifts to 50 percent capacity, but indoor dining restrictions are even less.  That means many skiers will not be able to find a place to sit to eat, even if they are brown-bagging PBJ sandwiches.

My recent pre-holiday visit to Aspen/ Snowmass/ Highlands showed compliance to social distancing requirements often did not make sense.

Some water fountains were wrapped in plastic and not available.  At others, the fountain part was shut off but the bottle refill part was operational, and at others, both parts worked fine.  Bathrooms can be immediately adjacent to an entrance door, or require walking through the entire lodge.

“Quonset”-like hut provides a place to go “inside”. Credit: Evelyn Kanter

At Aspen, the large, modern and wonderful Sundeck lodge at the top of the Silver Queen Gondola has added a large Quonset hut for the overflow.  But even that can accommodate only about 30 people at a time.  50-ish in the lodge, 30 in the hut, another 50-ish at outdoor tables – that’s enough for a 10am hot chocolate break, but not for the lunch crowd. 

At Snowmass, Ullrhof also added a large Quonset-like hut, also for only 30 people at a time.  Luckily it has a large outdoor deck area, as does Elk Camp, which has not added a heated hut.   So we’re talking about 100-or-so lunchers at a time at either spot.  That’s just not adequate.

At Highlands, Merry-Go-Round at the top of the main Exhibition lift from the base doesn’t even have an additional hut, which means about 50-ish people at a time inside.

None of the outdoor areas had heaters when I visited in mid-December.  That’s okay for a sunny day, even a cloudy one, with temperatures in the 30s but not for a frosty zero-degree day.

The four-mountain resort has been moving visitors to online touchless ordering, which has accelerated this season.  But it also is spotty.

If you have an Ikon Pass and account, or have the patience to input your credit card information on the resort app, you can pre-order food for a specific time and for pick-up at a special window. The problem is when the restaurant is at its limited capacity, and a burly security guard prevents you from entering, even to pick up the food you ordered online and already paid for online.

Limited capacity inside the “Quonset” hut. Credit: Evelyn Kanter

At Aspen, that meant waiting on line at the take-out bar, while a clearly over-worked solo employee was taking new lunch orders, handing out electronic buzzers to alert when orders were ready, and mixing drinks including Bloody Marys and Margharitas.  Not the most efficient way to handle a line of hungry and thirsty skiers and riders. 

My group waited nearly 20 minutes for our orders, tying up limited tables and chairs.  Our soups, chilis and mac-and-cheese orders were all barely warm at pick-up, but nobody asked for a reheat, which might take another 20 minutes.

And when I traded the buzzer for my lukewarm food, the staffer simply staked it on a spindle, without sanitizing it.  Maybe the stack was sanitized after I went to my table with my food.  Maybe not.

By comparison, at Highlands, I was texted when my order—a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato and bacon—was ready, within five minutes of my requested pick-up time, and it was piping hot. It was the best mid-day meal I had at four lodges on three mountains (I did not ski Buttermilk, so I can’t tell you about lunch or lift lines).

Yes – spotty.  Maybe they’ll fix it during the season. Maybe not.  Maybe it’s better at other mountain resorts.  Maybe not.

From my brief experience, it’s clear that resorts need to expand grab-and-go sandwiches, snacks, bottled drinks and outdoor seating with heaters.  The option of making a meal out of a couple of granola bars, trail mix and chocolate squirreled away in our jacket pockets and consumed while going uphill is okay occasionally, but not as a steady diet.  We’ve all done it to avoid long lift lines.  Now we’ll do it because a chairlift or gondola is the only place we can find to sit down, until après, of course.

As for lift lines, the rule is you can go up with your friends or family, ride alone, or ride with a stranger from the singles line. 

On my pre-holiday trip, lift lines ranged from 20 minutes for the Aspen gondola to ski right into the quad or six-pack. That’s pretty much standard for a non-holiday weekday, when there are normally fewer skiers wrestling for seats.  It seemed to balance out—fewer skiers and riders overall because of the pandemic filling fewer available chairlift and gondola seats.

The primary job of lift attendants this season just may be to remind everybody to cover their mouths and faces. I’m one of those who lowers my neck gator on a nice day to ski with my nose and mouth exposed for easier breathing.  So every time I came into the lift line there was a new additional step of pulling up my neckie.

This season, my hotel requires reservations for the pool, hot tub and gym, to manage social distancing.  That was less an issue than the lack of housekeeping.  At my hotel, staff enters only before check-in, to change the sheets and sanitize everything.  If you request fresh towels or more coffee during your stay, housekeeping leaves a bundle outside your door.   

For me, the issue was this new policy was not mentioned when I made the reservation, no discount was offered for the reduction in service, not even the offer of a few “points” on my loyalty membership program with the hotel brand.  Over the years, several hotel chains have offered courtesy points if you opt to skip a linen change during your stay.   

You can be sure that before my next ski trip anywhere that I ask about the housekeeping policy—if it’s not on the website—and will negotiate for either a small discount or some loyalty membership points.  And so should you.

We skiers and riders always adapt—to the weather, to conditions, to the speed and expertise of those in our group—and adapting to the new reality of Covid-19 rules is no different.

EDITOR NOTE – Pritkin County, where Aspen/ Snowmass/ Highland/ Buttermilk is located, now requires a recent negative Coronavirus test for out-of-state visitors.  Details here on the Pritkin County website

Reminders are everywhere. Credit: Evelyn Kanter

4 Comments

  1. Question is it really worth the money to spend such little time skiing? Why not ski locally and support them?

  2. 1. It’s ‘Pitkin’ County.
    2. Pitkin County is one of the ‘richest’ in the nation. Essential workers, including teachers, medical professionals, ‘lifties’, housekeeping staff, restaurant staff, construction workers and others often travel between 10 to 60 miles each way to get to work. In the winter – icy roads, snow storms. Car accidents that may delay you for hours, or even overnight. The “billionaires are kicking the millionaires out of Aspen”. Real estate prices are skyrocketing around our resort areas. Not enough employee housing.
    3. We skied at Breckenridge over the Holidays. Food service was grab & go – well organized. Lift lines were not ‘social distanced’, but most skiers were wearing neck gators.
    4.We didn’t mind the housekeeping policy at the hotel. Sanitizing takes time; workers often live in crowded quarters with little room for ‘social distancing’ if a roommate or family member tests positive.
    5. Vail just published their single day ski pass for MLK day. $250.00
    6. Skiing is a great outdoor activity during this pandemic. Let’s not forget about the people who make that possible for us.

  3. See my comment on the question above about skiing at big resorts, particularly Snowmass

  4. Avatar Peter McCarville says:

    It is Pitkin County after Colorado’s second governor. He is not a respected figure in CO history. He fomented genocide towards the Ute Indans of the region. His famous article penned for the Denver post around 1880 was The Utes Must Go”. see:
    https://www.aspentimes.com/news/is-pitkin-countys-namesake-as-questionable-as-columbus-day/

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