| The Repository
Brad Bowen is among the snowboarding enthusiasts counting down the days until Ohio’s ski resorts open. The 34-year-old Mayfield Heights man embraces the snow.
When there’s enough of it to consistently cover slopes in the region, Bowen plays out his wintertime ritual, standing atop an ivory hill and peering through his goggles at the terrain before accelerating and carving deep lines into the powdery canvas.
Such a scene plays out in Bowen’s mind even in the warmer months.
And ski conditions can’t arrive soon enough for him, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, which will drastically impact how resorts are operated as infections and outbreaks continue to plague the country.
Bowen, who frequents the slopes of Northeast Ohio while also traveling as far as Utah and Colorado to get his snowboarding fix, is already familiar and comfortable with the host of measures being implemented at the twin ski resorts of Boston Mills and Brandywine, located less than 10 minutes apart in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Precautions will include a reservation system, chairlift riding rules, social distancing, reduced seating in the lodge, face-covering requirements, the online ordering of lift tickets, limited food service, cashless transactions, cleaning and sanitization plans, and other protocols.
“Everyone needs to be patient and accept the changes so we can all enjoy the slopes this season,” Bowen said.
“The health concerns will not keep me from snowboarding,” said Bowen, who wears a magnetically-and-seamlessly integrated face mask and goggles that he says is ideal for protection from the coronavirus. “I snowboard almost every day (during the winter) and … all skiers and snowboarders are bundled up in the elements, so you would think the spread of COVID-19 would be limited.”
Resort operators echo those sentiments and believe the snowboarding and skiing experience can be reimagined in a safe environment without curtailing the fun and enjoyment of gliding down hills or riding a lift while gazing at picturesque views of rolling wilderness and open sky.
Dec. 19 is the projected opening date, weather dependent, for Boston Mills and Brandywine; Alpine Valley in Geauga County; and Mad River Mountain in Logan County, about 50 miles from Columbus.
Snow Trails in the Mansfield area typically opens the second week of December, with bonus weekends possible earlier based on conditions.
“Skiing by nature is a socially-distant sport,” said Thomas Conti, brand marketing manager for the Colorado-based Vail Resorts, which includes Boston Mills, Brandywine, Alpine Valley and Mad River. “Face masks are already part of the attire you wear at a ski resort, and through all of the precautions we’ve taken … safety is our No. 1 priority moving into the season.”
Nate Wolleson, marketing manager of Snow Trails in Richland County, said the family-owned resort is reconfiguring and rethinking fun on the slopes for a season unlike any other.
Preparations at Snow Trails have included hiring a company to erect a large tent that will be heated to create more seating with an emphasis on social distancing, Wolleson said. Plaza-style outdoor seating also will be made available near heat sources.
“We’re looking forward to a safe and fun and full season out here,” Wolleson said, noting Snow Trails has worked with Richland Public Health officials to develop a COVID safety plan. “We’ve put different safety precautions in place that will really help guests feel and see the safe approach to ski and snowboard and tube.”
Conti is also optimistic that resort visitors will do their part.
“We’re hoping because people are coming out to a place to have fun on their own time, they’ll understand and follow our guidelines to keep them safe,” he said.
Bowen made a similar point.
“Since the pandemic started in mid-March, we have all endured eight-plus months of this and we all know we have to do our part to keep ourselves and others safe,” the decades-long snowboarder said. “This is not anything new and each person has to do their due diligence.”
Boston Mills, Brandywine, Mad River and Alpine Valley are requiring online reservations as a strategy for limiting capacity.
Conti acknowledged holiday weekends are likely to reach capacity, which is one of the reasons pass-holders can reserve up to seven priority days for the season.
Daily lift tickets must be purchased online or by telephone instead of inside the ski resorts, and supplies will be limited.
“There is a cap on how many people we will have at the resort, which is a safe number,” Conti said.
Occupancy will be determined with a range of factors, including ski lift load capacity per hour, resort acreage and surface space, he said.
The focus is on keeping guests on the slopes as much as possible while providing “very limited” indoor seating and monitoring traffic flow inside the lodges, Conti said.
Vail Resorts also asks that non-skiing guests limit their time in the lodge to ensure that all guests are able to utilize those facilities.
Conti said Vail wants to give its guests the opportunity for outdoor recreation and exercise “with the peace of mind they’re not going to be right up against someone in a confined space.”
Snow Trails isn’t planning to limit capacity, although lift tickets can be purchased online, Wolleson said. Reservations, however, will be required for snow tubing, he said.
“Based on our capacity (and) with six chairlifts, we’re able to spread guests out and we plan to operate our chairlifts more frequently as needed to spread crowds out and to keep people having fun,” Wolleson said.
Food and drink
Food offerings also will be modified.
Snow Trails will make indoor dining available with an on-site reservation system, Wolleson said. Limited seating will be available and plexiglass dividers have been installed.
Live music won’t be featured on weekend nights this season, a popular attraction, he said.
Boston Mills and Brandywine are shifting to “grab-and-go” foods, Conti said. Full-service alcohol will not be offered and congregating will be prohibited at the bar, he said.
Snow Trails, meanwhile, will operate its bar in keeping with social distancing guidelines and other health regulations, Wolleson said.
Also impacted by the pandemic will be the ski school program and clubs for children.
“We’re working very closely with the schools on this,” Conti said, noting some districts are opting out of the program this winter.
Ski lessons will have limited class sizes and participants must complete a pre-arrival health screening, according to the website for Boston Mills and Brandywine.
“It’s been challenging for people,” Conti said, noting decisions on the school-related programs have been delayed significantly due to COVID-related planning.
Snow trails is also limiting class size for its youth programs while implementing other precautions as well.
Skiing, snowboarding and tubing are the wintertime equivalent of biking, camping and golfing, Wolleson said.
“We’re actually incredibly happy to provide that to families when there are limited recreational options (during the pandemic), especially during the winter,” he said.
‘More excited than ever’
Planning for this ski season has been ongoing for months.
A new health and safety manager position has been added in response to the pandemic, Conti said.
A refund policy has been established for pass-holders who lose their job due to COVID-19 or become sick, and in the event that health concerns would temporarily close a ski resort, he said.
Anticipation is high for the ski season, Conti said, despite being in the throes of a pandemic.
“It seems like our guests are more excited than ever,” he said. “It can’t come soon enough — that’s what I keep hearing.
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and [email protected]
On Twitter @ebalintREP
Websites for Ohio ski resorts have detailed information about COVID-related precautions.