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Maine Skiers Being Asked To Wear Masks, Warm Up In Cars To Earn Their Turns

Fred Bever
Maine Public
Sunday River Ski Patrol Director Josh Thompson.

Last week, a handful of Maine’s ski areas opened for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the lifts in the spring.

This year, as resorts start to welcome skiers from in and out of state, safety has taken on a whole new dimension.

After a sunny morning on the slopes at western Maine’s Sunday River resort, season-pass holders Alycia Bloom and Paul Bucens were packing up to head back to their homes outside Boston.

“Friday and Saturday, I mean it was like skiing on butter, It was beautiful,” Bucens says.

They’ve been careful to follow pandemic travel guidelines, including Maine Gov. Janet Mills’ recent decision that travelers from Massachusetts were no longer exempt from quarantine or testing requirements.

“When they removed the exemption for Massachusetts I high-tailed it and I’ve been up here for two weeks,” Bloom says. “He came up for the holiday and got tested.”

“It’s kind of frustrating, testing on the way up, testing on the way back, so I’m heading over to Gray for a test on the way back today,” Bucens says.

That’s just one of the new realities skiers and snowboarders face this season.

Access to base lodges and indoor dining will be tightly controlled, and prohibited at some smaller hills. Social distancing will be enforced on shuttle buses, ticket lines, lift-lines and even the lifts. Customers are being asked to suit up, boot up and warm up at their cars — no indoor equipment storage available. Masks are required everywhere except when eating or actively skiing downhill.

Credit Fred Bever / Maine Public
Maine Public
Signs outside Sunday River's lodge instruct skiers to use their cars as their home bases.

But skiers are used to a certain amount of trundling, and to strategizing ways to stay warm — including, of course, wearing masks. Bloom and Bucens say it’s the social distancing that most profoundly changes the experience.

“We’re not in groups around Barker Pub or on the deck or anything like that, which is kind of part of it right?” Bucens says.

“It’s great to be outdoors, I mean I can’t say that enough. But we’re doing it together, rather than with all of our friends,” Bloom says.

And for some, it’s all a bit of a buzzkill.

“It feels awful. ‘Cause everybody’s skiing in masks and they shouldn’t be. There is no reason to ski outdoors in masks. The people are just scared,” says Michael, a Massachusetts resident who heads uphill on skis with grippy “skins” to “earn his turns” back downhill.

Michael asked that his last name not be used, out of concern for social or professional repercussions.

“People are just scared to talk to you. They move away from you. And just thinking about it, what are the chances of asymptomatic, COVID-positive patients skinning up the mountain?” he says.

Most skiers seem appreciative, though, of the industry’s efforts to help them safely satisfy their need for speed. Josh Thompson, director of the Sunday River Ski Patrol, says while it’s not what anyone would wish for, skier safety now encompasses virus-avoidance. And so far that’s mostly reminding people to pull up their masks.

“Ninety-nine percent of people are happy to, they just forgot. There’s of course a few special folks out there who are seeking negative interactions. But it’s not really anything to be negative about. This is what the industry is doing, if we want to operate a ski resort,” he says, “which we desperately do.”

In normal years, Maine’s Alpine and Nordic skiing resorts generate an estimated economic impact of more than $300 million — one reason the state worked closely with the industry to devise pandemic guidelines for this unusual year.

State officials initially wanted skiers to answer a series of questions about their health and travel status before activating or picking up passes and asked to come another day if answers conflicted with quarantine, testing or other guidelines.

Dirk Gouwens, director of the Ski Maine Association, helped convince state officials it would be better to post the guidelines prominently, then ask customers if they read them and agreed with them in whole.

“If we had to ask every one of those specific questions to every single person who bought a lift ticket, the lines would be extremely long, which would slow down the process significantly, which would almost increase the potential for spreading the virus more because we’d have people in a close-proximity area just waiting to buy tickets,” he says.

Gouwens adds that the industry and Maine’s Community College system have teamed up to create an online safety certification course all employees must complete.

But while many on-mountain activities may be manageable within state guidelines, some events that add dimension to the experience — and revenues to the resorts — can present a more challenging viral vector. Concerts, holiday celebrations and special competitions will be scaled back or canceled.

That’s a major concern at the Camden Snow Bowl, host for more than three decades to the U.S. National Toboggan Championships.

“Knock on wood, we have not had to cancel this event yet,” says Holly Anderson, assistant director of the municipally owned Snow Bowl.

Anderson says in recent years the event has drawn well more than 1,000 competitors for races that feature as many as four on a sled.

“And then thousands of spectators. Because it’s a big tailgating event, everybody brings friends and college roommates. So the plan is to really pare it down from the 400 teams to half that number, and only allow two-person teams,” she says.

The toboggan races are usually scheduled for February, so Anderson says there’s a little time left before participants and state officials will need to be notified of any final decisions.

Meanwhile, back at Sunday River, Bloom says she’ll be grateful for any chance to snatch some time on a snowy slope.

“This weekend’s been great. The weather’s been warm. The snow has been soft. It is the spring skiing we didn’t get last year,” she says.

In addition to abundant snow, the ski areas are hoping that this year, customers will study the guidance, plan appropriately and treat their cars as their cozy new, mini base lodges.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.