Erik was reluctant to visit a ski resort during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Our daughters, whose interest in skiing had been waning in recent years anyway, flat-out refused.
But after reading everything I could about Covid transmission outdoors and the precautions the ski resorts are taking this year, I was convinced it would be safe. I was able to convince Erik and 11-year-old James to join me as well. Our two visits to Squaw Valley Resort during the week before Christmas confirmed that the set-up is pretty safe, although it also made it clear that not everyone is going to be careful and that some of the prescribed precautions are not all that practical in real life.
Here are the Covid-19 prevention measures Squaw promised:
- Crowd control. “We will be controlling total visitation by temporarily eliminating the sale of “walk-up” tickets at the window, and by tightly controlling the sale of advance purchase tickets.” (Not that they didn’t promise to keep attendance down to any specific percent of normal.)
- Face coverings. “Essentially, guests should expect to wear a face covering almost all of the time, except while skiing or riding down the mountain.”
- Limited indoor access. “Due to current regulations, we cannot allow guests to linger inside. … Guests’ personal vehicles will be a good option for breaks throughout the day.”*
- Chair and gondola distancing. For lifts, “Guests will be asked to self-group with people who are within their party.” For the Funitel, which is an enclosed car with windows, “Per California state guidelines, the Funitel, Tram and Tram elevator will operate at a 25% maximum capacity, so up to seven people on the Funitel and 27 on the Tram. Six feet of physical distancing must be maintained between members of different households and there will be standing room only (no bench seats). On the Funitel, households may request to ride alone, although guests who would prefer to ride only with their household are advised to use the Squaw One chairlift to access the upper mountain.”
* This suggest strikes me as unrealistic. Squaw is set up so that you take one big ride in the morning up to the base, then don’t go down to the Village and parking lot until the end of the day. Also, the parking lot is a pretty long walk through the village from those lifts. If we had gone to our car in the middle of the day for lunch, the extra lifts and walking would have been at least an hour round trip.
So, based on these precautions, I expected that we could avoid spending time within 6 feet of anyone outside our household, would not have to encounter unmasked people, and would not have to share indoor space except for using the bathroom. I even dared to hope that due to reduced attendance, I might find the restroom completely empty. We packed our own lunch to avoid having to go indoors to purchase food (and because ski resort food is hella expensive).
We also dared to dream that reduced attendance would give us a lovely, low-crowd experience, where we could park close to the entrance and enjoy short lift waits and nearly empty slopes.
The reality? Some of our expectations and hopes came true, while a few fell short. However, overall I was satisfied that we were safe during our visits.
When we first arrived at Squaw on a Tuesday morning, we were indeed able to park closer than ever. Erik dropped James and I off, parked the car, then walked over to join us. The first thing I noticed that was different about wearing a mask at a ski resort is that my glasses fogged up terribly as soon as I got out of the car. It was so bad I ended up taking off my glasses and walking around the Village with limited vision. Fortunately, this was only a problem at first, and once I had been outside for awhile, my glasses didn’t fog as much.
If I had ordered my lift tickets early enough, we would have received them in the mail and could have preceded directly to the lifts. However, when we left our home about a week after ordering, the cards hadn’t yet showed up in the mail, so I had to wait in a short line at a ticket window to show the receipt on my phone. At this line, people were distancing a bit front to back, however I would say there was not six full feet between every group. In addition, although Squaw says they widened lanes for lines, there was not six feet of distance side-to-side. However, everyone was wearing a mask and the wait was short, and of course we were outside, so although I didn’t feel 100 percent comfortable in this line, I also didn’t feel terribly at risk.
At the window, there was no contact with the staff because there was glass between us.
In the Village, I was indeed able to find a totally empty restroom to use, tucked between retail stores.
Then we got in line for the Funitel to go up the mountain. I hadn’t read the rule above, just the general assurances that the resort was going to operate Covid-safe, so I was expecting we could ride the Funitel with just the three of us. As we waited in line, I noticed some signage advising that parties who wanted to ride alone should use “Squaw One.” We didn’t realize that “Squaw One” was actually a chairlift and not part of the Funitel. When we got to the front of the short line, I asked the staff if we could ride just the three of us. The first staff person said yes. When we went to board the Funitel, the second staff member said no we could not ride alone. I told him that the other staff member had said we could, so he let us, but said “Don’t ride this again.”
Because of this experience, we knew on our second visit to go directly to the Squaw One lift to avoid any problem riding alone.
When you get off the Funitel, you are actually indoors. So we had to walk a short distance down an indoor hallway, carrying our skis, with other people. However, the hallway is very spacious with open doors and no one was too close to us. However, this could also be avoided by going up on the Squaw One chairlift instead of the Funitel.
Once on the mountain, the lift lines were not too long. There were staff members watching the lines and reminding people to put their masks up over their noses. Although everyone of course had a face covering, I would say compliance was at 85 percent with keeping noses covered in line. There was always some group of 3 or more young guys who had theirs pulled down. Sometimes the staff got them, sometimes not. Usually we were lucky enough not to be near these people.
The ropes controlling the lift lines were set wider than usual, and there were signs reminding people not to crowd close together. Like the ticket line, I didn’t think we were really always 6 feet apart both front-to-back and side-to-side. Occasionally someone would crowd us from behind. But in general it wasn’t too bad.
On larger lifts, we were occasionally asked if we would mind having a single join us. We always politely declined and the staff made it clear that this was absolutely fine. The signs indicated that it was OK for mixed parties to ride together as long as they had one space between them on the lift. We weren’t satisfied with that, but plenty of other people were willing to ride together. I even saw groups agree to join together without spaces between them. This was pretty much the biggest safety concern I saw the whole day.
At lunchtime, we were able to claim our own small table on an outdoor terrace near the top of the Funitel. Erik and I mistakenly thought we needed to go through the indoors again to reach this terrace, but you can actually also access it just by going up some outdoor stairs. The tables were far apart enough that we felt OK taking off our masks to eat and drink. Yes, people occasionally walked past our table when we were eating, but again, we were outside.
After lunch I went back indoors to use the ladies’ room and I think I met one person coming out but otherwise had it to myself.
On the slopes themselves, I’d say the crowds were lighter than usual although not deserted. I never felt that someone skied or rode so close to me that I was in danger. Also, although the rules don’t require it, many or most people kept their faces covered while going down the mountain. We did most of the time as well, although there were times that I got out of breath going down a long slope with moguls and pulled mine down to get a little more airflow. Still, if I saw someone approaching me, I put it back up.
In general, you could really tell that Squaw was at a fraction o.f its normal capacity, and we appreciated it. The lift lines weren’t super speedy because the chairs weren’t getting loaded full, but at the same time none of the waits were super long either. Although we’re not planning on taking another Tahoe trip before the Covid situation improves significantly, if I lived in the Tahoe area I would feel comfortable skiing at Squaw regularly.
One other thing: We actually wore double masks for some of our time at Squaw, such as in the ticket line and when I had to go indoors. We had regular cotton masks on our faces at all times, and then we would pull up our neck gaiters for full coverage. James, who is cautious to the extreme, wore both his masks all day. But one problem I noticed with cotton masks while skiing is that they became saturated with moisture pretty quickly because of of the cold air. At first I changed the regular “face mask” after it got too wet, but after a couple of days, I ditched that layer on the mountain and used my double-layer neck gaiter instead because it did better at wicking. I also found out that my “over-the-glasses” goggles worked great at preventing the mask from fogging up my lenses. Because of this, I ended up wearing my goggles much more than I normally would have, and am almost tempted to wear them around town.
In my next post, I’ll review what it was like to ski at Northstar during the Covid pandemic.