After COVID outbreaks at Alta, is Utah’s ski industry ready for omicron?

Outbreaks at Alta lodges show pandemic is far from over.

Sara Nichols, an avid skier from Southern California, sat out last winter’s ski season while the industry adjusted to the coronavirus pandemic.

With vaccines widely available this year, however, she and her husband booked a pre-Christmas weeklong ski vacation to Alta, the storied Utah destination at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Their Dec. 19 arrival came on the heels of major winter storms that left the Wasatch covered in fresh snow.

Despite the ideal timing, the vacation quickly went south when COVID-19 outbreaks swept through some of Alta lodges, forcing the Nichols to retreat to Los Angeles after only two days on the slopes.

Adding to her frustrations was what she observed at the airport, in hotels and on the mountain, where she says basic safety norms were disregarded.

“I’m not going back to Utah. It’s a COVID [nightmare]. Nowhere has better powder than Alta. Too bad it’s in Utah,” said Nichols in a phone interview on Tuesday. “I’m not going to give them an opportunity to kill me.”

Nichols, 74, has a pulmonary condition that puts her at elevated risk for a lethal outcome should she contract the coronavirus, so she takes extra precautions and is not shy about asking those around her to mask up.

Alta Mayor Harris Sondak confirmed several lodges and Alta Ski Area experienced COVID-19 outbreaks last week among employees, disrupting operations and skier services. Alta is not likely alone in feeling the effects of the resurgent coronavirus epidemic, driven by the new omicron variant.

In Park City, Utah’s other premier ski destination, the COVID-19 infection rates have spiked through the roof since the start of ski season, according to new data released by the state Department of Health.

Although it has Utah’s highest vaccine rate at 82.6%, Park City saw 558 new cases over the past two weeks, for an overall infection rate of nearly 2% of the population for that period, or more than double Salt Lake City with the state’s second-highest rate.

Nichols’s experience illustrates the risks Utah’s ski industry faces as it resumes operations this winter while relaxing the health protocols that got it through last year. Utah’s ski industry not only survived, it thrived, seeing a record 5.3 million visits, according to Ski Utah. Utah resorts experienced no serious disruptions associated with COVID-19, even though vaccines were not widely available until the end of the season.

That’s a credit to Utah resorts, according to Alison Palmintere, Ski Utah’s director of communications.

“Resorts have proved they can be agile in implementing policies in response to case counts. Resorts are in contact with each other talking about what’s working and what isn’t,” said Palmintere, who was not aware of last week’s Alta outbreaks. “They were very prepared, and everyone is monitoring the situation. They will continue to follow what the CDC and the Health Department deem appropriate.”

Alta General Manager Mike Maughan acknowledged several employees tested positive last week, and said they were all vaccinated.

“Once we had anyone test positive, we isolated them outside the canyon so that we could minimize that spread among our employees and particularly the employees that lived in company housing,” Maughan said. “We had to do more stringent things with masks, took all the communal meals and that kind of stuff away until we get through it. We’ve weathered the worst of our part. We now have these employees coming back.”

He said it was only a tiny percentage of Alta’s 540 employees that were infected, but it was still enough to impact operations. Staffing shortfalls forced Alta to idle the Wildcat lift for a day and close a restaurant for a few more. It has also canceled the New Year’s Eve torchlight parade, an annual tradition stretching back decades.

But the real pinch point appears not to be on the mountain but in Alta’s lodges, which are operated independently of the ski area.

Sara Nichols was staying at the Alta Lodge when she received a text on Dec. 21 informing her that five staff members tested positive that day, spurring her to pack her bags and book a flight home.

Others experiencing outbreaks were the Alta Peruvian Lodge and Goldminer’s Daughter, according to guests.

Cliff Curry, a town council member who is president of Alta Lodge, said his 57-room hotel indeed saw many positive test results among employees last week, but he declined to confirm the exact number. In an interview Tuesday, he did say it had been three days since the last positive test.

The lodge responded to the outbreak by sending infected staff off the mountain and limiting public services.

“We closed our bar, we closed outside dining, kids club, yoga, we limited lunch service,” Curry said. “Every measure we took was to protect guests, employees and public health, so the bar was the first to go.”

Alta Lodge requires everyone to be masked in indoor public spaces and requires all employees to provide proof of vaccination. Guests must be vaccinated or have a negative test within 72 hours of arrival, but the lodge does not require documentation.

“Under our values as a company, we have to follow the facts and the science. We have to keep people safe. That’s No. 1,” Curry said. “We had to reach out to our guests and communicate with them very candidly and clearly because that’s the only way forward. We are based on relationships.”

The lodges rimming Alta’s base area all have protocols to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but the rules vary widely. Before the ski season opened, Mayor Sondak wrote a letter to all the lodges asking that they require both guests and staff be vaccinated before entering. Some complied; others didn’t.

At one end of the spectrum is Alta Rustler Lodge, which requires proof of vaccination for everyone and applies strict masking rules for public places, and at the other is the Snowpine Lodge, which requires neither vaccination nor masks. Its webpage devoted to health and safety does not even mention the pandemic, COVID-19, masks or vaccines. The lack of consistent rules frustrated Sondak, who steps down as mayor this week after declining to run for a second term.

“We live in Utah,” Sondak said, “so of course it’s all over the map because it’s left up to individual companies to decide what to do.”

And then it’s up to individual guests to decide whether to respect the rules.

When she checked out early from Alta Lodge last week, Nichols watched as a staffer tried to get an unmasked guest to cover his face as he was checking in. The encounter summed up much of what went wrong on Nichols’s long-awaited ski trip.

“He says, ‘Am I supposed to be afraid of you or are you supposed to be afraid of me?’” Nichols said. The employee said, ‘Well, we have a mask mandate. I need you to put a mask on.’ He wouldn’t. And he walks away.”

That day several more lodge employees tested positive.