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A look inside Summit County ski areas’ approved winter operation plans

DILLON — Summit County’s four ski areas have finalized their operation plans for this winter amid the pandemic.

The plans — which go into detail about how each resort will work to protect public health, including managing crowd sizes — were vetted by the local and state public health departments before the resorts were permitted to open for the season.

The Summit Daily News received copies of the plans from Summit County after submitting a public records request, though the portions that discuss target skier numbers, or capacity limits, were redacted because resorts consider skier visit numbers to be proprietary.

Summit County Environmental Health Manager Dan Hendershott said setting capacity limits on the ski industry is tricky.

Most industries can follow a reduction in the percentage of people in the building. Restaurants, for example, can use the capacity limit of the building and reduce it by 50% or 75%, depending on the public health order. But there are no capacity limits established by building or fire codes that apply to the entirety of a ski area.

Hendershott explained that public health officials went about setting target skier numbers at each resort by limiting the capacity of each chairlift or gondola. Those “comfortable carrying capacities,” as they’re called, are in each ski area’s master development plans, which are submitted to the U.S. Forest Service.

“It essentially looks at lift by lift and how much that lift can carry people comfortably before you start getting longer lift lines and wait times,” Hendershott said about the comfortable carrying capacity metric. “It was never intended to be a COVID planning tool. Of course, there’s no playbook for how to manage a ski area in a COVID pandemic scenario, but that was a pretty good tool that we identified working with our partners at the ski area to be able to reasonably assess what might be a good target or baseline or measure similar to what a restaurant capacity might have.”

Breckenridge Ski Resort’s comfortable carrying capacity is 14,920 guests per day according to its 2007 master development plan, which notes that peak days can bring over 20,000 guests. Based on Arapahoe Basin Ski Area’s 2012 development plan, the ski area’s comfortable carrying capacity is 3,780 guests per day with Black Mountain Express lift at 810. Copper Mountain Resort’s comfortable carrying capacity is 11,870 guests per day, and Keystone Resort’s is 12,110.

Going off this metric, public health worked with the ski areas to reduce the capacity in order to comply with guidance released by the state. The carrying capacity of a four-person chairlift could move to three, for example, because chairlifts must leave at least one open seat between unrelated parties.

So, each resorts’ capacity is based on how many lifts are open and how many people each lift can carry under current guidelines. As more lifts open for the season, the capacity total increases.

Throughout the process, Hendershott said some ski areas’ designated carrying capacities had to be reworked and reviewed.

Hendershott explained that during a normal season, ski areas frequently exceed carrying capacity. Breckenridge’s master development plan notes that “it is expected that resorts will experience peak day visitation up to 25% above their (comfortable carrying capacity).”

This season, the capacities are meant to be followed through measures like reservation systems or tracking passes sold. Hendershott said the county will continue working with ski areas throughout the season and can adjust capacity limits if they feel the current plan misses the mark.

Other safety measures

Ski area plans also included anticipated volumes for base areas and restaurants. A-Basin wrote in its plan that about 250 guests are expected to be split between its three eating establishments during periods of peak volume. With a 72,000-square-foot base area, A-Basin’s plan noted it will limit capacity to about 250 guests, allowing for 288 square feet per guest. A-Basin’s plan also said staff will close the parking lots when the number of guests approaches 85% of capacity.

Both Breckenridge and Keystone are using an online reservation system to manage visitation. The plans say the resorts will manage capacity at restaurants in accordance with the public health order by monitoring guests either manually or through an automated reservation application. The plan listed capacity at each restaurant in accordance with the dial level of the county. For example, Breckenridge’s The Maggie has a capacity of 50 people under level orange on the state’s COVID-19 dial. Breckenridge and Keystone did not share base area capacity numbers in their plans.

Copper’s plan also states that food and beverage establishments operated by the resort will be run in accordance with state guidelines and notes that there will be no cafeteria-style dining — only full-service options. Copper’s plan says the capacity of base area spaces will be monitored and based on the purpose of the space, following either the state’s social distancing calculator or the county’s required 100 square feet per person.

As for enforcing policies like mask-wearing and physical distancing, A-Basin plans to ask guests who do not comply to leave the ski area and noted that they can revoke skiing privileges or escort violators off the property with the assistance of the U.S. Forest Service or law enforcement, if needed.

Breckenridge and Keystone’s plans say that no one will be permitted to load a gondola or chairlift without a face covering. Both resorts plan to have a limited supply of masks available for guests who arrive without one. Breckenridge and Keystone also require masks throughout the resorts.

Copper’s enforcement plan is to train employees to talk to guests about requirements and be able to diffuse the situation if a guest is resistant. If a guest refuses to comply with protocols, the resort plans for security and ski patrol to help. If the situation escalates, the Summit County Sheriff’s Office will be contacted.

Cancellation policies are were included in the plans. State guidance asks resorts to create flexible cancellation policies so guests don’t feel pressured to travel when they are sick.

The Keystone and Breckenridge plans say that ski reservations booked by passholders can be canceled up until midnight the morning of the reservation and can be rebooked without penalty. According to Breckenridge’s website, lodging cancellation policies depend on arrival date. For arrivals through Dec. 17, no deposit is required and full payment must be made 48 hours in advance of the reservation, at which time the payment is not refundable. For reservations from Dec. 18 to Jan. 2, a 10% deposit is required and full payment must be made 45 days in advance, at which time the payment is nonrefundable.

Copper stated in its plan that the resort has implemented generous cancellation policies for lodging reservation and ticketed products but did not elaborate. The resort’s website states that a lodging cancellation earlier than 30 days prior to the arrival date will result in the forfeiture of a $40 deposit. Cancellations made within 30 days of the arrival date are nonrefundable unless the buyer opted into the resort’s vacation protection plan.


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