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As regions across California grapple with restrictions on commerce and travel during the coronavirus pandemic, one destination has remained open all winter: Lake Tahoe’s ski areas.

The Tahoe region was allowed to reopen outdoor dining and hotels earlier this week, just in time for Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, a popular time for skiing. However, a state travel advisory implores people to avoid driving more than 120 miles from home, which puts Tahoe out of range for Bay Area residents. The advisory also asks that out-of-state travelers self-quarantine for 10 days upon arrival. For anyone who lives closer to Tahoe or has met those requirements, skiing this weekend is a possibility.

When the pandemic first hit California last spring, ski resorts across the Sierra shut down, fearing that crowds of out-of-towners comingling in packed lodges and chairlift lines could worsen the outbreak. But after an off-season of careful planning and infrastructure improvements, Tahoe’s 11 major ski areas have worked to pandemic-proof themselves.

Face coverings and physical distancing are required at every resort. Resorts are asking skiers to wear protective masks or double-layer their buffs to minimize the risk of virus transmission. Many have installed radio frequency identification (RFID) readers at chairlifts to scan skiers’ passes quickly and keep lift lines moving swiftly. Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows says it invested $1 million in COVID safety, including “electrostatic sanitizing sprayers” used to disinfect the resort.

Given the low likelihood of transmitting COVID outdoors, the snowsports industry is touting skiing and snowboarding as safe, healthy activities and ski areas as essential outlets for people who have been cooped up by shelter-in-place rules for nearly a year.

Once you’re on the mountain, skiing is still skiing, says Michael Reitzell, president of the California Ski Industry Association. “It’s an outdoor, open-air experience.”

But the process of getting to the mountaintops, and the social culture around the sport, has changed substantially. Here’s what to expect from a day on the slopes and how to plan a successful trip.


Planning & Pass Sales

The days of the last-minute ski trip to Tahoe are over for now.

Ski areas are requiring day skiers to buy passes online in advance. Ticket windows are closed for walk-up pass sales. Some resorts require season passholders to reserve their ski days in advance too. The idea is to limit the number of skiers on the mountain to avoid crowding.

The theme of the year, according to industry messaging, is “know before you go.”

For a full breakdown of what is happening at each venue in Tahoe, including information on COVID restrictions and ticketing, check out the Chronicle’s pandemic ski guide.

Many ski areas have made cancellation and refund policies more lenient for those who cancel due to COVID. For instance, Vail Resorts, which operates Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood, began offering “Epic Coverage” this year for Epic passholders, which offers refunds for resort closures, illness, injury or job loss. Other resorts are allowing people to carry over credit on their passes to next year in certain unforeseen events.

As California reopens and changes restrictions regionally, ski areas are reacting and diligently posting information and updates on their websites. Make sure to check resort websites and read the fine print on pass purchasing before you book.

“If you plan ahead, you’ll have a much more relaxed experience,” said Kevin Mitchell, Homewood Mountain Resort general manager.

With the lodge closed to indoor dining due to Covid-19 precautions, snowboarder Noah Fischer of Santa Cruz eats his lunch in the parking lot on opening day at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California, November 20, 2020.

Parking

Ski lots often fill up on popular weekends when the snow is great, and this year could be particularly challenging for drivers given that fewer skiers are likely to carpool to the mountains.

Parking lot shuttles that carry skiers from their cars to base areas may not be operating, which means people who end up parking far from the lifts could be in for a hike. Check with individual ski areas for specifics.

Ski lockers are off-limits in most places; skiers are being encouraged to use their cars to stash whatever they may need during the day. Note where a ski area’s parking lot is before you plan your trip and whether shuttles are running. At some ski areas, like Homewood, the parking lot is right next to the base lift; at others, getting back and forth between your car and the lifts may be more onerous.

Nick Makarewicz sanitizes a rental counter between guests during opening day at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California, November 20, 2020.

Lodges & Food

Now that the Tahoe region is in California’s purple tier, ski lodges can partially open retail and outdoor dining.

But the typical experience of elbowing into communal cafeteria dining tables is on pause this year. Instead, many ski areas have invested in expanding outdoor eating areas — more picnic tables, chairs and benches — and are offering only grab-and-go food options. Some have mobile apps where you can put in a food order for pickup.

Because lodges and warming huts may not be open for dining-in or hanging out, resorts are reminding people to bring enough layers to stay warm outside all day.

Bathrooms at many ski areas are being cleaned and disinfected hourly and have been retrofitted with touchless faucets and dispensers for soap and paper towels. Heavenly in South Lake Tahoe, for instance, has installed partitions between sinks and blocked off every other urinal to give people more space.

Rohlando Aaron of Fremont gets some socially distant help fitting rental ski boots on opening day at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California, November 20, 2020.

Rentals & Lessons

For both gear rentals and ski lessons, people are being encouraged or required to reserve them online in advance.

Most rental shops are open and taking extra steps to keep gear clean, but they may have guest quotas designed to avoid crowding.

Lessons are still available at most resorts, but in many cases are only available to individual skiers or skiers from the same households. Resorts that are continuing to group lessons this year are keeping them to smaller groups and encouraging distancing.

Single lift riders can opt to ride by themselves or spread two people out on a chair on opening day at Heavenly Mountain Resort in South Lake Tahoe, California, November 20, 2020.

Chairlifts

Resorts are making efforts to space out guests on normally packed chairlifts. Riders from a single household are allowed to sit next to each other on a single chair. But single skiers either ride one per chair or are required to slide to opposite ends of a chair when sharing with other singles to maintain distance during the ride up the mountain.

“If you show up in a car together, you can ride the lift together,” Mitchell said. “If you’re a single skier, you may be riding by yourself.”

Skiers and riders are also being asked to stay six feet apart in lift lines and avoid eating and drinking in the maze. Ski area staffers are helping keep lines organized and orderly.

Many ski areas have adopted RFID systems, in which skiers simply cruise through an automated turnstile that scans their passes and keep queues flowing seamlessly. Also, you’ll see signs posted around chairlifts exhorting guests to keep their masks on and faces covered.

Resorts with trams or gondolas have implemented new rules on how they operate. At Squaw Valley, for instance, the funitel and tram are running at 25% capacity.

Aprés

The concerts, happy hours, tailgating and lodge parties that define a typical season at ski areas have been canceled this year to thin crowds. Skiers and riders are instead being encouraged to avoid gathering and head straight home or to their cabin or hotel after a day on the slopes.

Says Ron Cohen, president and COO of Squaw Valley Alpine Meadows, “We’re encouraging people to look at this season as more than ever about skiing and less than ever about the rest of the ski experience.”

Gregory Thomas is the Chronicle’s editor of lifestyle & outdoors. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @GregRThomas