Blaine County was Idaho’s first coronavirus hot spot when the pandemic first arrived here in March. Though it’s impossible to know who brought the virus to the mountain towns or where its initial community spread began, some signs pointed to Sun Valley, the popular ski area, and the out-of-town visitors and events it drew.
One visiting group of skiers reported that dozens of members became ill — several of them with confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus — shortly after leaving the ski area. Brent Russell, an emergency room physician in Ketchum, told the Statesman in March that he thought he may have picked up the virus at the ski resort.
“Even though skiing would seem like a low-risk activity since it’s outside, it’s probably an incredibly high-risk activity,” Russell said at the time, pointing out the close contact with strangers on ski lifts and in lodges.
Experts pointed to other ski areas around the globe as potential superspreader sites early on: In Colorado, Vail and Aspen became sites of outbreaks, as did Park City in Utah, and some resorts in Austria and Switzerland. Now, as ski areas again prepare for their busiest season, Idaho ski officials are cautious but say they’re confident that new precautions can keep the coronavirus at bay.
For ski areas, summer was practice for busy winter season
Ski areas around Idaho chose to shutter their operations early this spring as COVID-19 first spread around the state.
“We voluntarily ceased all operations on March 17,” said Tamarack Resort president Scott Turlington in a phone interview. “It was the right thing to do. Having gone through what we’ve gone through now, we would not change that decision. It forced us to understand what we were confronted with.”
As the weather warmed and cases dipped in Idaho, resorts reopened for summer operations — mostly hiking and mountain biking — which have since proved to be a valuable primer for the 2020-2021 winter season.
Tamarack, which is located near Donnelly, had a particularly busy summer.
“From a visitor perspective, we were up 200%, roughly,” said Turlington. “We didn’t expect that.”
Like Tamarack, Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area near Boise and Brundage Mountain near McCall welcomed summer visitors. Ken Rider, general manager of Brundage, said the summer opening was crucial to figuring out how to handle more complicated winter operations.
“It was definitely nice to have that as a runway into winter and give people an opportunity to see how all this rolls,” Rider said in a phone interview. “If (the first coronavirus outbreak) had happened at the start of last winter, it would have been much harder to roll this out.”
All three ski areas required summer visitors to wear face masks and will continue that policy in the winter. Nate Shake, director of mountain operations at Bogus, said there were few issues with visitors not wearing masks during the summer.
“The majority of people were wearing their masks and were happy to do so,” Shake said in an interview. “You have a few that (take) their masks off when they ride up the lift and need to be reminded to put them back on at the top. I think the winter will be easier (because) everybody’s used to wearing some sort of face covering skiing or snowboarding.”
Masks are required when guests are in line to get on lifts and when they’re getting off the lift, as well as in lodges or anywhere else they might be in close contact with nonhousehold members. But on the mountain, Shake said, “it’s gonna be pretty similar to what it was before.”
None of the Idaho ski areas are requiring masks to be worn while visitors are actively skiing or snowboarding.
“We feel comfortable on the mountain,” Turlington said. “There’s plenty of room to spread out.”
But there will be other big changes. Earlier this month, Bogus announced that it would limit some pass sales on busy days to discourage overcrowding. Shake said visitors should prepare to use their vehicles as a “home base” at Bogus, as they won’t be able to store gear or leave items in the lodges.
Outside food and drink are not allowed in the lodges or the four large tents that will be erected near Simplot and Pioneer lodges to allow for additional social distancing. Bogus restrooms will still be available, and guests can buy food and drink on-site. Shake said an online ordering system will allow people to “grab-and-go” to reduce contact.
Brundage and Tamarack have instituted similar measures. Restaurants will be at limited capacity, and guests are asked to limit time at lodges. Masks are required at both ski areas when indoors or if social distancing isn’t possible outdoors. Tamarack has installed no-contact pickup boxes for lift passes, while Brundage has added outdoor storage lockers since guests won’t be allowed to leave belongings in the lodge. Brundage and Bogus will both offer private lessons only, in lieu of group classes.
All three said they’re incorporating additional guidance from the National Ski Areas Association’s “Ski Well, Be Well” initiative to keep guests and employees safe.
Ski officials: Mask mandates, guidelines can prevent COVID-19 hot spots
All these efforts are meant to keep Idaho ski areas from becoming COVID-19 hot spots.
“We were early adopters of a mask requirement, and part of that was definitely driven by fear of being a hot spot,” Shake said. “When the first outbreaks happened … we definitely looked at that and learned those lessons.”
Bogus won’t hold any big events this year, which were believed to be part of the problem at ski areas earlier in the year. Officials are also hopeful their precautions will prevent spread from visitors traveling to their mountains.
“It wasn’t a great showing that (this industry) was a hot spot,” added Tamarack’s Turlington. “But having that as our example, it’s given us a chance to step up and be a leader (for coronavirus precautions).”
That’s especially important for Brundage and Tamarack, which have fewer local health care resources to address an outbreak.
“We’re certainly kind of keeping an eye on all of the trends and what is happening in the state,” Rider said. “There is a level of (wondering), ‘If people come here are they going to be bringing COVID?’”
Rider said McCall managed to avoid any outbreaks over the summer despite seasonal tourism from the Treasure Valley and beyond. Both Tamarack and Brundage are in Valley County, where Central District Health in August mandated that face coverings be worn in public. There’s no end date to that public health order, but Rider said he thinks it will be beneficial during ski season.
“My hope would be that the people that make the decisions (on those mandates) take into account what we’re seeing as a state and continue to move forward with that mask ordinance,” he said.
Bogus Basin is in Boise County, which has no such public health order. Shake reiterated that he doesn’t believe enforcement will be an issue. For anyone who opposes the health measures, Shake has a simple solution.
“We’re pretty much asking that if people don’t want to follow the mask guidelines or any of the other guidelines that we have for the winter season that they don’t come here,” he said.