Skiers and snowboarders make their way down a trail at New Hermon Mountain ski area in this 2015 file photo. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

As ski areas throughout Maine prepare to open for the busy winter season, they’re making some major changes to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last ski season ended abruptly in March as the pandemic swept across Maine and the country.

The ski mountains are ready to reopen now. In an effort to reduce close contact among people, many ski areas are encouraging skiers to purchase online lift tickets and reserve their rentals online as well. They will be strictly limiting the number of people inside buildings such as base lodges. Skiers will be required to wear face coverings indoors and in all areas where practicing social distancing is difficult, including lift lines and while riding on lifts.

“We think it’s going to be a good season, we just think it’s going to be different,” Dirk Gouwens, executive director of Ski Maine Association. “Some people will probably arrive, ski and maybe go back [home] without even going indoors.”

Ski Maine Association is continually working with ski areas throughout the state, helping them navigate changing state laws in relation to COVID-19 and public safety. The association is also assisting ski areas as they adapt the “Ski Well, Be Well” best practices, which were recently developed by the National Ski Areas Association for operating during the pandemic.

“The biggest changes will really be in the base lodges and hotels,” said Karolyn Castaldo, director of communications for Sunday River in Newry, one of Maine’s largest downhill ski areas. “We’ve already started constructing walled off areas to break up space to accommodate groups of people.”

Stage four of the Restarting Maine’s Economy plan, which began Oct. 13, increased the limit on indoor seating to either 50 percent capacity of permitted occupancy or 100 people, whichever is less. The limit for non-seated indoor activities, such as physical activity in gyms, remains at 50. It’s unclear how the limits will impact ski lodges, some of which have multiple rooms or stories. But the Ski Association of Maine is working with the state to get answers for the ski areas.

While details are still being ironed out, many ski areas have already posted COVID-related safety rules on their websites, as well as updates on what changes skiers can expect at their facilities. For example, skiers will not be allowed to change gear or store bags at the Sugarloaf ski lodge, and the number of people in the lodge will be strictly monitored.

Sugarloaf shuttle buses will be operating at 50 percent capacity so people can be more spaced out. Face coverings will be required at all times on the buses, which will be sanitized after every drop off. And to reduce the amount of people using the shuttle system, Sugarloaf is suggesting that drivers drop people off at the base lodge, then find parking and use the shuttle service if needed.

Ski lessons are still available at Sugarloaf, but the groups will be smaller, with limited enrollment, and they’ll meet outside instead of in the lodge. The daycare program has been canceled for the season. Large scale events and gatherings have also been canceled. And it’s possible that lift tickets may be limited or unavailable to purchase at the ticket window on peak days.

“Although many things will be different this winter, we are confident that we will be able to provide a safe environment for you to enjoy the mountain,” said Karl Strand, general manager of Sugarloaf, in a prepared statement.

Not all planned changes take away from people’s skiing experience. For example, Sunday River has announced that its opening additional warming areas, restaurants and food trucks, which will help disperse crowds.

“With COVID-19, the more we can space people out and offer different options, the better,” Castaldo said.

To keep up to date about the many changes and new rules, visit the website of your ski area and check it often, as alterations may be made throughout the season.

“I think everybody is in a continual scramble every single day deciding what they can do and can’t do,” said Bill Whitcomb, owner of New Hermon Mountain, a small family-owned and run ski area in the Bangor area. “We’re just going to respect people’s health and do our very best to be a positive, not a negative in this whole thing.

Many of Maine’s ski areas, including Sunday River, Sugarloaf and Saddleback, have sold season passes for the coming season, with an assurance that if the season runs short (due to COVID-19 shutdowns or poor weather conditions), passholders will be issued credit for next season’s pass. However, some ski areas, such as New Hermon Mountain, decided to hold off on selling season passes this year. Instead, they plan to sell day passes.

“We felt that we just couldn’t do season passes this year because we couldn’t guarantee a full season, and that’s what a season pass does,” Whitcomb said. “We’re looking at this season as — you’ve got to be very flexible and make changes.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to promote the health benefits of spending time outdoors and staying active, and offers visitor safety guidelines for visiting recreational facilities during the pandemic. In addition, the Maine government has promoted the health benefits of outdoor recreation throughout the pandemic.

“Our message is to get out and enjoy the outdoors like you did all summer long,” Gouwens said. “It’ll be different and take time to adjust, but we think everything will work out just fine as long as people maintain distance and wear face coverings, and I think we’re pretty much used to that by now.”

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.