Utah ski resorts staying open during coronavirus outbreak, and marketing themselves as a safe, friendly sports alternative

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers at Snowbird on Friday, March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Ski resorts closing as Summit County sees community spread of coronavirus; state total at 10 cases

Park City • A meme circulating on social media lately features a scene of single skier riding an otherwise barren lift through a snow-covered winter wonderland. Printed in red text atop an otherwise empty ski run is this advice:

“Skiing involves gloves, masks, goggles and wide open spaces. Fight COVID-19. Go skiing!”

Many skiers and snowboarders riding the lifts at Utah resorts this week have taken that attitude, but it’s not for everybody.

The Swiss government closed all of that country’s ski resorts on Friday due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19. The same day, Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico announced it would close two weeks early for the same reason, joining at least two other U.S. resorts to come to that end. Yet resorts across Utah are staying open during the outbreak.

Nearly all of Utah’s resorts issued statements this week on their websites and through emails detailing measures they are taking to curb the spread of the highly contagious virus. For most, that includes more frequent cleaning sessions, adding hand-sanitizing stations and asking employees to stay home if they feel ill.

Several resorts are also offering full refunds on lift tickets or flexibility in rescheduling stays in an effort to lose as little business as possible during the spring break period. Already one of the three peak windows for skier visits, this month could be even busier at resorts as precautions taken against spreading the virus have shut down schools indefinitely, put pro and college sports on hiatus and made social gatherings taboo.

So far, spring break is off to a fairly quiet start, however. A poll conducted by SNEWS, which covers the outdoor trade industry, indicated 25% of its 550 respondents had or planned to cancel travel this spring due to the coronavirus and another 49% were “concerned; monitoring closely.” More tangibly, one Park City Mountain Resort ski instructor said people who had booked lessons a week ago were making cancelations and some instructors who expected to work this weekend were being told they aren’t needed.

“Deciding to ski should be a personal decision for each person based on their own health and safety precautions,” Anelise Bergin, director of communications for Ski Utah, wrote in an email to The Tribune, “but our ski resorts are open for business for those who would like to get out and enjoy wide-open spaces, fresh mountain air and thousands of acres of wilderness in the Wasatch.”

The Schmidt family from Melbourne, Australia, and the Ovadia family from Westchester, N.Y., were doing just that Friday at Park City Mountain Resort. They gathered around a metal table in the corner of the Umbrella Bar’s outdoor seating at The Canyons for a break during what they plan to be a four-day stay in Utah. The two families planned the trip months earlier — long before COVID-19 became a public health concern — and felt the risk wasn’t enough to curtail their travel plans. The Schmidt family arrived in the United States two weeks ago and had gone to an NBA game in Los Angeles, hiked in Yosemite, played in Las Vegas and skied in Colorado before settling down in Park City.

They planned to end their trip with a visit to Disneyland, but had to change plans when the amusement park closed Thursday for the rest of the month. Instead, they’ll fly back early to avoid potential border closures and to offset the inconvenience of an expected 14-day quarantine upon arrival.

“It’s changed what we do, but it’s OK,” said 11-year-old Bailey Schmidt. “As long as you have good health and hygiene and look after yourself, you’re OK.”

Those families felt they were at minimal risk of contracting the virus at a ski resort. That mindset was apparently shared by hundreds of others who squeezed together at the bar, waited in chairlift lines and packed the tables at the nearby DBB restaurant.

Some of the employees who run the lifts and wait the tables at resorts around the state feel differently, however. That includes one whom Lexi Ovadia, 11, said abruptly ended a conversation, pulled up his neck gator and walked away when he learned her family was from an area known to have some of the most COVID-19 cases in the country.

An Alta employee said on Thursday he was growing increasingly worried that ski resort operators weren't considering all the ways the virus might travel in a resort setting. Lots of employees have contact with guests and the things they touch — whether via lessons, rental gear or food service.

"We are still getting a lot of tourists," he said. "That's a huge source of people who could have something."

The Tribune is not naming the Alta employee nor the PCMR employee because both feared retaliation both from their employers and other employees in the ski industry because of financial losses if resorts begin to limit operations.

"We see the headlines coming through,” the Alta employee said, “we talk to our boss, and it's like, 'We're going to have a manager's meeting but I wouldn't expect anything.'"

Most resort employees are seasonal and do not have access to paid sick leave. Some ski areas, such as Brian Head and Snowbird, are looking at ways to compensate those who lose work due to the virus. A plan proposed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday would provide, she said, “paid emergency leave with two weeks of paid sick leave and up to three months of paid family and medical leave" if it is approved by the Trump administration.

The employees’ concerns bear extra weight after two more cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed in Summit County on Friday. That brings the total number of cases diagnosed in the county — home to three of Utah’s ski resorts — to four. Three were found in out-of-state visitors.

Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, said Friday that public health officials identified everyone the three Summit County visitors came in contact with while they were infectious.

“Those cases are all isolated, so they’re not able to spread it to the community any further,” Dunn said.

There are no plans to urge ski resorts to close, Dunn said.

“We are always working with our large businesses to make sure that they’re prepared and understand what the implications might be if we do have to implement more strict social isolation measures,” she said.

Some resorts have already shut down access to places that are close quarters or where mass gatherings might occur. Powder Mountain closed off two of its cat skiing areas and its Powder Country shuttle “due to tight quarters in snowcat cabins and the inability to adequately ensure personal space.” Park City Mountain Resort late Friday announced it will encourage skiers and snowboarders to only board chairlifts with members of their own party. Snowbird, meanwhile, has temporarily closed its tram, which carries up to 100 skiers and snowboarders to its Summit Lodge. The lodge remains open, resort spokesman Brian Brown said, by accessing the Mineral Basin chair lift via a tunnel from the Peruvian lift and then taking that up to the top of Hidden Peak. The resort has also canceled all on-mountain ski competitions, such as the IFSA Junior Nationals and the IFSA Freeride World Tour qualifier.

According to a statement on the Snowbird website, “We are committed to doing what we can to maintain our operations in ways that responsibly take into consideration the needs of our employees and guests. We are doing so because it is our foundational belief that it is beneficial for the soul to live and enjoy the adventure lifestyle — and this is particularly the case in times like this, when anxiety and stress are high.”

Tribune reporters Sean P. Means and Erin Alberty contributed to this report.