Clicked in, boots cling to skis that dangle from chairlifts. Once atop the snow-covered slope, the descent begins.
It’s a familiar winter scene, and New Yorkers are again taking to the slopes as lake effect and Adirondack snow settles over the north country this season.
But the familiarity is underscored by a new and dominating consideration — the global and ongoing COVID-19 health crisis. As Snow Ridge Ski Resort in Turin, Lewis County, puts it: “Shred it, don’t spread it.”
March 7 will mark a full year of Executive Order 202, issued by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as an initial disaster emergency declaration in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Six days earlier on March 1, the first novel coronavirus infection was confirmed in New York. Ten months later, the state has recorded nearly 1.2 million positive cases and 40,000 deaths, contributing to the nation’s 23 million cases and more than 380,000 deaths — and counting.
Last spring, the initial spread of the novel coronavirus prompted the state’s roughly three-month pause, closing schools for in-person learning, restaurants for in-house dining and non-essential businesses for physical services. By the time ski resorts were gearing up for the 2020-21 winter season in the fall, the governor issued updated pandemic guidance and permitted ski resorts to open on Nov. 6.
Most ski resorts in the north country, including Snow Ridge Ski Resort, Dry Hill Ski Area in Watertown and Titus Mountain Family Ski Center in Malone, opened for the season in December, a few weeks later than previous seasons.
The state is requiring social distancing and masks to be worn at all times, except when eating, drinking or skiing. Lift use is restricted to members of the same party, and “thorough cleaning and disinfection” of rented equipment is expected.
Ski school classes are limited to 10 people. Indoor capacity is cut to 50%, and outdoor capacity on mountains is cut to 75% of peak 2019-20 attendance.
Nicholas D. Mir and his mother Cynthia J. Sisto purchased Snow Ridge from retiring owner Russell Horn in 2015. The pair, with more than 40 years of combined experience in the industry, has since strived to grow the 400-acre site into a year-round destination with summer and fall festivals and events.
Ms. Sisto previously worked as sales and marketing manager at the Toggenburg Mountain Winter Sports Center in the town of Fabius, south of Syracuse, for 32 years. A 2009 graduate of Clarkson University in Potsdam, Mr. Mir also worked at Toggenburg and at resorts in Oregon and Colorado.
“This season started off slow weather wise,” Mr. Mir said in January. “We’re definitely getting decent crowds now.”
With the loss of allowable seating in the main lodge and tavern, Snow Ridge has added tables to the lower and upper floors of the lodge. A patio and fire pit was also added off the tavern to increase outdoor capacity. Outdoor heaters are stationed near the lift ticket window and the equipment rental area.
Dry Hill has rearranged indoor tables to account for 6-foot social distances and added a few outdoor seating options.
Ahead of opening weekend in December, Dry Hill owner Timothy L. McAtee told the Watertown Daily Times ski slopes may be one of the safest spaces to be during the pandemic, given the naturally-distant nature of skiing and snowboarding.
Just across the New Hampshire border at Sunday River Ski Resort, the Maine Center for Disease Control in January began an investigation into a COVID-19 outbreak. The 1,100-employee resort has three hotels and 11 restaurants.
The Maine resort has logged 25 confirmed cases since it opened for the season on Nov. 23. As of Jan. 20, eight cases were currently active and 20 staff members were in quarantine. An additional 20 guests have been notified through contact tracing that they may have come in contact with another guest or staff member who tested positive, according to a resort spokesperson.
Such outbreaks have not been noted this season in the north country, where ski areas are smaller in scale and staffed by fewer people.
Snow Ridge’s 50 employees during peak winter months routinely sanitize spaces and equipment, and guests, Mr. Mir said, have largely been cooperative with state rules and the resort’s own policies. Mask wearing — a longstanding precaution that prevents the virus’ spread from breathing and talking — is enforced at Snow Ridge, and those who do not wear masks are asked by staff to either wear one or leave.
“You’ll have outliers in terms of following the rules, that’s to be expected,” Mr. Mir said. “But overall, people have been respectful.”
Family-owned businesses nationwide, across all industries, have struggled to maintain pre-pandemic staffing and revenue levels, but Mr. Mir said he doesn’t anticipate a loss in revenue from last year because of the pandemic. In fact, Snow Ridge has grown in some ways. Tubing on weekends and holidays was added to the resort’s offerings mid-January. Tubing is also available at Dry Hill and Titus Mountain.
“The overwhelming response is just that people are happy to be able to have something to do and be outside,” Mr. Mir said.
Titus Mountain is promoting the practice of “The Six Cs” — Avoiding Crowds, Close contact and Closed spaces, Covering up with a mask, Cleaning hands and Caring for yourself by eating, sleeping and exercising well.
Similarly, the National Ski Areas Association and Ski Areas of New York are encouraging a “Be Well Ski Well” philosophy. That means abiding by state mandates and site-specific rules.
In its efforts to adjust to the pandemic, Titus Mountain constructed Slopeside Skibanas for parties to rent for $99 per day. Designed as day cabins similar to poolside cabanas, the 10 cabin-like ‘Skibanas’ are heated and furnished with a couch and table.
Both Snow Ridge and Titus Mountain are utilizing an online check-in tool for visitors to use prior to arrival. Should contact tracing need to be facilitated due to a potential COVID-19 exposure at a resort, check-in requires the name and contact information for all people planning to visit.
With no ski resorts, St. Lawrence County is home to several cross-country trail networks and free skiing and snowshoeing opportunities.
Nicandri Nature Center, along the St. Lawrence River in Massena, loans cross-country ski and snowshoe equipment for free. Funded by the New York Power Authority, the nature center is a base for six miles of groomed trails through Robert Moses State Park near Robinson Bay.
Reservations for skiers and snowshoers needing equipment are required, and nature center Executive Director Tracy L. Thomas said daily slots have been filling up since the center reopened to the public in November. Hour and a half slots for 10 people are open four times a day on Wednesdays and weekends — at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. — allowing a total of 40 guests to use equipment, cleaned after each use.
“People have been really happy that there’s still a fresh-air activity they can do with their families,” Ms. Thomas said.
Typical hours are listed, but check each location’s website for the most up-to-date information on hours and pricing.