As COVID-19 infections rise, is this year’s ski season as safe as people think?
on December 19, 2020
On Nov. 25, one day before Thanksgiving, Squaw Valley in Lake Tahoe ushered in the first day of the snow season. At 9 a.m., the parking lot was already more than half full, with about 2,000 cars. People wearing their ski boots and helmets lined up in the 34-degree temperature to collect their season passes. It looks like any other snow season—except this year, everyone is standing six feet apart and wearing masks.
Lake Tahoe offers world-class skiing and is about a three-hour drive from Oakland. It’s a popular destination among Oakland students and residents and generates a lot of money for the area. According to a report, more than 20 million people in the U.S. participated in downhill skiing, snowboarding and snowmobiling during the winter season of 2015-16. Together, they added more than $20 billion in economic value to the U.S. economy.
Eason Zhu is a first-year undergraduate student at UC Berkeley. He was excited to catch the first snow. “This is the happiest day I have ever had in 2020,” Zhu said.
Meanwhile, coronavirus cases are rising rapidly throughout the state, with more than 1.7 million residents in California infected and more than 22,000 deaths. In the U.S., more than 17 million people have been infected and nearly 313,000 people have died. Even with rapidly increasing infections every day, skiers and snowboarders are eager to participate in their favorite sport.
Larry Peluso is a 70 year-old man who moved from Oakland to Lake Tahoe for a few months because he wanted to ski as much as possible, even though he’s at high risk for the coronavirus. He says he’s still using immunosuppressive drugs after an organ transplant, but he tries to ski at least once every year and has done so for the past 48 years. Peluso says he’s willing to take the risk because he loves the sport. “This year I bought new skis and boots so I’ll try to stay as much as I can on the snow.”
California public health officials only released COVID-19 guidelines for ski resorts on Dec. 1. They mandate that skiers make plans in advance and that no day tickets or drop in tickets will be sold. Skiers and snowboarders must have a season pass, advanced reservation or a pre-purchased lift ticket to access resorts.
In addition, the guidelines say everyone should wear a mask, whether outdoors or indoors. Skiers, snowboarders and employees must maintain six feet of distance, especially while waiting in line for the chairlift. People should ride only with members of their household and should line up for trams and gondolas outdoors.
Ski resorts are also advised to “avoid activities that promote group gatherings,” impacting how ski lessons and ski teams are structured.
Ryan Conner is a snowboarding coach at Squaw Valley. He says the kids he teaches are eager to get back out in the snow because COVID-19 ended the 2019 season so early.
He feels skiing or snowboarding is one of the safer activities to do during the pandemic. “You have goggles on,” he said. “When it’s cold everyone wears a buff or something to cover their face. So I think that’s pretty good.” He says his students won’t have to make any changes when on the mountain. “Off the mountain, it’s just a little weird wearing a mask.”
This ski resort in Lake Tahoe works closely with the local California county health officials. Resorts that follow the state’s guidance were allowed to reopen. California’s ski areas generated $3.2 billion in the economy during the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to a report published in September by Ski California.
In the absence of state public health guidance before Dec. 1, many ski resorts in Lake Tahoe were even preparing to begin sales of day tickets. This would have meant many more people coming to the mountain.
John Swartzberg, editorial board chair at UC Berkeley Health and Wellness Publications, says state health guidelines are important and decisions should not be left to resorts. “The decision making to open is not based on saving people’s lives but is based on profit, so that’s why we need government,” Swartzberg said.
Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows began selling four-day tickets instead of one-day tickets, and they extended the time to purchase season tickets. Vail, the operators of Northstar, Heavenly and Kirkwood in Tahoe, have a reservation system for some pass holders to spread crowds out on the busiest days.
Swartzberg says skiing itself is a low-risk activity, at least in terms of the coronavirus. The riskiest place is when people gather on the mountain. But he still recommends people not travel or ski this season.
“In about a week we are gonna see the full effect of the Thanksgiving surge,” he said. “And it’s only going to be worse because we are going to have holiday parties. With Christmas and New Year, things will only get worse.”
Swartzberg says even though being outside is much safer than being inside, standing in line with a big crowd is “still very risky.” On the third day of the season in Squaw Valley, there are easily over 100 people standing in line to get on the Squaw Express lift.
Diego Galicia is a senior at Berkeley who has been filming and taking photographs for the past three snow seasons. He planned to expand his snow photography business on TikTok or social media to make a profit, but couldn’t this year because he doesn’t want to travel to Lake Tahoe. He’s worried about putting his family at risk.
“I am more concerned about my parents and my grandparents. I don’t want to bring back the virus to them because my grandparents are all over 80 and we live together,” Galicia said.
Tim Spykerman sells season Ikon passes to students, which are valid in several resorts. “Before the COVID-19, we could just go on campus and hold a huge snow season selling party. But since COVID-19, we can not go to any campuses,” he said.
Spykerman said even with the restrictions, there were more than 2,000 passes sold in November.
Ski resorts also keep extending the season pass sale. “It normally ends before the season starts, which is Nov. 15, but now they are still trying to get more people to get season passes,” Spykerman said.
“The skier and snowboarder who decide to continue their season are more concerned about snow conditions than the epidemic,” Spykerman said.
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