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Aspen Skiing Co. outlines plan for ski operations during pandemic

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times
Snow blows on the Little Nell run as snow is made on Aspen Mountain on Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020.
Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times

Aspen Skiing Co. Operations Plan

Aspen Skiing Co.’s operations plan for the pandemic-plagued ski season was approved by Pitkin County on Wednesday and forwarded to the state of Colorado for review.

The 53-page plan covers everything from the Highland Bowl snowcat (it won’t operate) to procedures for ski patrollers (they will wear disposable gloves and other personal protective equipment when called on to treat an injured or ill skier or snowboarder).

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock said the county checked for compliance with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s requirements for ski area operations this winter..

“We found that the company covered all the rubric,” he said.

The state health department also will review and inform Skico and the county within the next few days if changes are required, Peacock said. The Colorado ski industry is slowly cranking up for the season, just as state and national COVID-19 cases start to soar. Keystone, Loveland, Arapahoe Basin and Wolf Creek are among ski areas that have started spinning lifts. Aspen Mountain and Snowmass are opening two weeks from today, on Thanksgiving.

“Aspen Skiing Company’s primary goal for this season is to safely operate for the entirety of the season, while supporting and ensuring that our community stays safe and healthy,” said the opening of Skico’s operating plan. “ASC understands that this must be part of a broader community-wide effort.”

Skico will take actions that have become standard in the COVID-era — beefing-up cleaning and disinfecting of facilities and infrastructure, requiring employees and customers to wear masks in most situations, and marking off social distance in lines at retail operations, bathrooms and restaurants. But the plan also makes clear that virtually every part of the ski experience will be tweaked or altered this winter.

There is currently no plan to require season pass holders or lift ticket purchasers to reserve time on the slopes. However, Skico is ready to initiate such a plan, if needed. The company said it has “developed a backup reservation system that can be implemented” in case COVID-19 cases “move to problematic levels.”

In the meantime, Skico is using pass products to try to spread usage more evenly across its four ski areas and from traditional peak periods to less busy times.

The plan specified capacity limits for Aspen Mountain, Snowmass, Aspen Highlands and Buttermilk but that section was blacked out from a copy The Aspen Times acquired from Pitkin County through a Colorado Open Records Act request.

“The following section on capacity is considered proprietary and is not available for public consumption,” the plan said. Nearly two pages that are blacked out follow it.

Skico said the winter operations plan is flexible so that capacity can be increased or decreased as conditions warrant.

Skiers and riders won’t be pampered with as many guest services as they have in the past. For example, people skiing Highland Bowl will have to fully earn their turns. The snowcat that provides a lift for a portion of the journey up the Bowl won’t operate this season.

At the Silver Queen Gondola at Aspen Mountain and the Elk Camp Gondola at Snowmass, skiers and riders will be asked to load their own boards. “If help is needed, lift operators will assist,” the plan said.

Windows on gondola cabins will remain open, even in bad weather. An electrostatic sprayer will be used for a “deep clean” on the gondola cabins each morning as weather permits. “We will spray down cabins throughout the day so that they can dry on the way down if temperatures allow,” the plan said.

In lift and gondola lines, the guests will have “guidance to demonstrate appropriate spacing when waiting to load,” the plan said. Guests will be required to wear face coverings while loading, unloading and riding the lifts.

“Chairlifts will load with parties that are comfortable together,” the plan said. “Parties may load lifts to full capacity. No guests will be loaded with anyone outside of their party if they object to doing so.”

Facilities such as on-mountain restaurants and base facilities won’t be as inviting as in the past. For example, most of the furniture will be removed from the Aspen Highlands lobby and ticket office to “discourage loitering.”

The ski patrol headquarters will not be open to the public. If help is needed, visitors can knock on the window or call a number listed on the door.

Skico will post a “doorman” at on-mountain restaurants to help manage physical distancing at entries, waiting areas and queues. “All employees and guests will be required to wear a mask while navigating the facility, ordering food and at the cash registers,” Skico’s plan said.

Tents with seating capacity of as many as 50 people will be erected wherever possible to increase restaurant-seating capacity. They will have heating and air filtration.

They will be added at Elk Camp, Ullrhof and High Alpine at Snowmass; the Sundeck at Aspen Mountain; and Merry Go Round at Aspen Highlands.

In its bathrooms, Skico is considering “blocking off stalls” to provide adequate spacing. “Porta-johns” will be added outside of facilities to boost capacity.

“All public restrooms and Porta-johns will be cleaned and disinfected every hour,” the plan said. All hand dryers will be turned off and disposable paper towels provided. Hand sanitizer will be available.

Skico will use a carrot-and-stick approach to enforcement.

“ASC will train employees in empathetic dialogues that inform and remind the guests of our requirements in following the 5 Commitments to Containment,” the plan said. Signage on requirements for social distancing and masks will be provided wherever customers congregate. Individuals will be thanked for wearing masks and adhering to distancing. They will be reminded, when necessary, of the importance of the action and how each person’s behavior impacts others, according to the plan.

“Employees will not allow guests that are refusing to follow requirements into facilities or onto lifts,” the plan said. “If guests refuse to follow requirements, their pass/ticket will be blocked for the remainder of the day and they will need to speak with the mountain manager prior to re-establishing access.”

Skico said it has already implemented a comprehensive guest communications plan so that there are no surprises when customers arrive. The efforts will include clear explanations about cancellation and postponement policies.

“Our goal has been to clearly set guest expectations and develop reasonable policies that do not disincentive guests who are feeling sick from staying home and/or seeking medical attention,” Skico said in the plan. “ASC has developed a range of products and policies with various cancellation and postponement policies so that guests can make informed judgments about what makes sense for them.”


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