NSAA-Chair-Cut It'll be a bit lonely on the lift this season as resorts comply with social distancing mandates. (National Ski Areas Association)

As the first snowflakes of the season dust the Rocky Mountains, resorts across the U.S. wholeheartedly believe there will be a 2020-2021 season and they will try to make it feel like as normal as possible despite the pandemic.

But, overall, it will take longer for skiers and riders to get onto the mountain. And, the free-form life in the hotel, at the base, on the lift, and down the trails will be reined in.

Mandatory face coverings, gloves, constant wipe-downs, no-touch transactions, and hand sanitizer stations will be the norm. Social distancing, too, inside lodges, in lift lines, and on lifts. Childcare likely will be cut back, and apres-ski will take a hiatus for now.

On the slopes, social distancing will be the number one priority. This likely means controlling the number of visitors who are allowed into the resort -- and how they move around.

So far, most out-of-the-box is Aspen Snowmass' proposed rotation of pass holders around its four mountains.


Spread Out

However, what has emerged is a sport that inherently presents a low risk for virus spreading. The National Ski Areas Association recently launched its SkiWell BeWell guidelines, and emphasized the following:

Now, for what resorts are doing to enhance these elements. NSAA points out that ski and snowboarding areas have always been good at managing the flow of folks in lift lines, on the slopes and in the lodges. So it makes sense that they can confront the challenges of social distancing.

Indoors, expect capacity limits for warming huts and lunch spots, with little sit-down eating, mostly grab-n-go food, credit card-only transactions, and a strong appeal to brown-bag. Outside, longer wait times in lines, and less conviviality among strangers on the lift.

Know, however, some of these may be offset by fewer people coming to the slopes, an offshoot of economic hardships and health concerns, or by state-ordered capacity limits. A 36,000-person survey by Mountain Traveler indicated pent-up desire to ski and ride, but the vast majority of travelers want the resorts to have health and safety measures in place -- and to make it clear what is expected once they arrive.


Bye, Bye Ticket Windows

When it comes to tickets, COVID-19 has truly shuffled the deck. Season pass refunds, credits, and deferrals began with the March shutdown, as did extensions on preseason pass deadlines. Payment plans abound, but pricing is all over the lot.

The elephant in the room remains further government shutdowns -- and state-by-state quarantine orders. So "assurance" programs have sprung up all over, from no-questions-asked refunds -- with deadlines now common into November -- to full or pro-rated credits toward 2021-22 passes all the way into April 2021. Many have rolled them into existing insurance; some require COVID-related reasons for refunds.

To buy a day or short-term lift ticket, expect to pay online and see sales limited in busy times. The preponderance of touch-free scanning will be fully embraced. And many resorts may add in more blackout days or offer more limited-day options to cut crowding.

Industry leader Vail Resorts decided to institute a reservation-only system, with Epic Pass holders getting priority at all of its 37 resorts. Competitor Alterra Mountain pushed its Ikon Pass credits to next spring but leaves most COVID-related policies up to its 15 resorts.

Industry vets expect further consolidation of passes and partnerships, such as Bousquetjoining the Berkshire Summit Pass, an increase of resorts into Indy Pass, and more partners signing up with Powder Alliance.

Some season pass sales were on hold as of Sept. 1, such as the New England Super Pass and Taos Ski Valley, both of whom working on customizing. Some smaller ski areas, like Plattekill Mountain, have taken a wait-and-see attitude with a promise to adust on the fly.


Gettin' There And Stayin' There

Again, it's going to take longer from home to the slopes than ever before. According to Mountain Traveler, the majority of skiers and riders will drive rather than fly; this applies to the Midwest and West primarily. Once there, it'll take more time to get to the slopes, as more cars will fill parking lots up earlier, and parking lot shuttles will be required to have fewer riders per trip.

A majority of potential ski resort travelers surveyed have COVID concerns about flying. Prices have plummeted -- and scheduling remains fluid, especially to ski towns that subsidize the service like Steamboat. There will bargains to be had. Same with airport rental cars.

For transit users, expect town-to-mountain shuttles -- like New England Snow Bus, Windy City Express, or Stevens Pass Express -- to have fewer seats. For mountain-town and resort shuttles, likewise.

Lodging remains a wild card at this time. Mountain Traveler survey listed "safety of lodging" as the fifth-highest concern. Cancellation policies have drastically loosened -- seven-day notice now the norm. Disinfection efforts have been heightened. Less than 30% of all Americans say they will travel around Christmas, according to trade surveys. So, look for screamin' deals as the season approaches.


Rent And Learn

NSAA is working on industry protocols for both renting equipment and taking ski or snowboard lessons. Some resorts have put out their own.

To rent, you'll assuredly have to do so online. Then at the hill, limits will be on how many folks can be in the shop at any one time. How shops will handle the fitting process is still to be determined.

Rental delivery service Ski Butlers can go no-touch by orally guiding customers through fitting process.

For lessons, again, reserve and pay online. Options will likely be pared down, such as at Loveland with no full-day lessons. Class size capped, and everyone can't show up at the same time; expect "timed arrivals" for sign-in, and to stay outdoors throughout the sign-in process. Fewer, if any, specialty clinics, ski weeks, kids-ski-free deals and other such options this season.