In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Colorado skiing is back as winter recreation enthusiasts ascend to the Rockies, with restrictions designed to keep them protected from the coronavirus.
In early February at Breckenridge in Colorado’s Summit County, I skied above the timber line in wide-open expanses with powder up to my knees; carved wide, sweeping turns with friends; and kicked back with a craft beer when the day of skiing was done.
I breathed in the high-altitude fresh air and felt refreshed by descending Breckenridge’s peaks
But there were differences in skiing during the pandemic versus in years past.
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I bought a Vail Resorts Epic Pass this year to make sure I’d have a reservation to ski on my winter holiday.
I ate my lunch outside in 10-degree weather.
I had a face covering over my mouth and nose most everywhere I went – except when I skied downhill.
And the only indoor dining I did in town was at outdoor yurts; at my friend’s home; or alone, in my cozy one-bedroom unit at Park Meadows that looked out on a trail called Four O’Clock Run.
After 6 inches of snow fell one Saturday, lift lines as long as 15 minutes inched along at Breckenridge’s Peak 7, but they were short during the ensuing midweek days.
There, I met millennials who’d relocated to Breckenridge for a month or two, juggling the demands of working remotely while taking occasional vacation days and squeezing in runs around their work schedules. There were retirees venturing out to experience the great outdoors at 12,000 feet and families on the mountain with their children out skiing or snowboarding during breaks from remote learning.
Yet others escaped the alpine skiing crowds by opting for cross-country skiing at the town of Breckenridge’s Gold Run Nordic Center, which also required advance registration.
“It’s a chance to enjoy life and nature,” said Sam Ziv, a snowboard instructor who moonlights at the ski shop Sun Logic. “People have been cooped up so long.”
Breckenridge has so far been managing the influx of tourists. By mid-February, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment reported five active outbreaks at the resort involving just 11 staff members and two guests.
Skiers and snowboarders are keeping safe by wearing masks, maintaining social distance, avoiding large groups and enjoying the great outdoors.
Waiting at the free shuttle bus stop on Four O’Clock Road was Mindi McLean of London, who had escaped her country’s lockdown, where many stores are closed and people are allowed to exercise outside just once a day.
“People are completely covered up here in Breckenridge,” she said. “I’m glad to be here. You’ve got to live.”
Still, the COVID-19 ski season has proved difficult for restaurants and retailers. Shannon Foley, general manager at The Blue Fish, said she’d been on the receiving end of vitriol by tourists who didn’t want to wear masks or insisted upon being seated at tables that would exceed the state’s limit. “It’s exhausting,” she said.
Her restaurant has responded with outdoor dining in canvas-covered yurts, which feature fine dining in a space warmed by a hanging 1,500-watt heater, which kept the temperature comfortable for us to dine in heavy sweaters as we sampled fresh sushi, shrimp tempura topped with salmon and tender Kobe beef, with asparagus and shitake mushrooms.
Gravity Haus at Peak 9 has outdoor ski cabanas imported from Ukraine, which you can rent for as little as $50 weekdays or $100 on weekends, for up to five hours, with a $100 minimum food and beverage tab. They feature a picnic table, two easy chairs, games for kids, a space heater and a phone charger.
Amy and Blaine Stern, who have a Breckenridge condo and had been skiing all day, stopped by during one afternoon’s heavy snowfall to check out the cabana they had rented for an evening on Valentine’s Day weekend.
“Skiing is one of the safest things you can do during COVID,” she said.
The ski industry, along with state and local health officials, have enacted a flurry of regulations to limit the risk of infection. Colorado’s rules are friendlier to out-of-state winter recreationers than Vermont, which requires most non-Vermonters to either quarantine in the state for 14 days once they arrive or quarantine at home for seven days and obtain a negative coronavirus test before visiting to ski – but the latter is an option only for travelers arriving by car or private plane.
In Colorado, there are no such quarantine requirements. And indoor dining in Summit County has been increased from 25% capacity for 50% for the 100+ area restaurants with a 5-Star rating from the Colorado Department of Health & Environment.
Skiers from different households can sit on a ski lift together, but at least one seat must be vacant between them. Breckenridge lift-line attendants were vigilant to inform those in lines to keep their mouths and noses covered. You need a reservation for indoor dining at the mountain, which I opted not to do. Instead, I packed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, drank free water handed out at the grab-and-go windows and ate at outside tables.
I ventured inside to use the Breckenridge bathroom facilities, where there was a limit on occupancy. But there was no lingering on the walkway to the facilities, as my friend Doug and I learned one frigid afternoon when we stopped to chat by a concrete pillar, hoping to warm up our toes.
“Gentlemen, you can’t stand there,” we were instructed. We were directed to the nearby indoor “warming” area where we could sit, masked, for 15 minutes but were not allowed to eat or drink.
We decided not to. We got back on the lift. We warmed up skiing down a trail called Nirvana.