Part of the $18 million in upgrades at Saddleback Mountain this year includes a larger kitchen, more bathrooms and a dining area expansion that will increase seating from 126 to nearly 400 – making social distancing inside the lodge easier. Photo courtesy of Andy Shepard

Halfway through the summer of coronavirus, Maine’s ski areas are already planning for the challenges of operating next winter during the pandemic.

Managers at the ski areas, large and small, are confident they can offer a safe skiing experience, chiefly because it’s an outdoor sport in which – by the nature of rushing downhill – participants must maintain social distance. Face coverings outside are a given, because skiers and snowboarders typically wear scarves or neck gaiters over their faces to keep warm.

But how to provide the necessary indoor amenities – such as restaurant seating, restrooms, changing areas and places for skiers to warm up – remains a question.

“Overall, I’m optimistic, just because the core operation of what we do is skiing and snowboarding, and that core thing can probably be done safely because it’s outdoors and people are spaced out,” said Ethan Austin, the marketing director at Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley. “The indoor part is obviously challenging.”

Mountain managers at the state’s three big ski areas – Saddleback Mountain, Sugarloaf and Sunday River – are mulling over various options. And after five years of being shuttered, Saddleback may be ahead of the curve when it comes to dealing with pandemic restraints.

Saddleback’s new owners – the Arctaris Impact Fund – are replacing the Rangeley chairlift with a new high-speed lift that will offer a 4-minute ride (compared to an 11-minute ride previously) to spread people around the mountain faster. Installation started June 1 and will be completed Nov. 15.

Arctaris also is adding a computerized ticket dispenser that lets skiers buy tickets online, a new air filtering system for the lodge, more bathrooms, a larger kitchen, and a new dining area that is three times larger than before.

The $18 million in investments this year were planned before the pandemic hit, but the improvements will help make Saddleback safer by allowing skiers to social distance more easily. Saddleback General Manager Andy Shepard said, if needed, they’ll look into a heated tent or having staggered seating indoors in the restaurant.

The tentative opening date will be Dec. 15, Shepard said, and the resort will be fully staffed with 200 employees.

Workers install the new concrete pad for the drive terminal of the new high speed detachable quad at Saddleback Mountain last month. The ski area’s new owners, Arctaris Impact Fund, are investing $18 million in the ski area this year. Photo courtesy of Andy Shepard

“Saddleback will be alive and well again,” Shepard said. “If we do the hard work of figuring out how to keep people safe, I have no doubt that this could be a terrific ski season. We know what we have to do is demonstrate we take people’s health very seriously. We’re going to do everything we can to make it a safe environment, so all people have to think about is having fun.”

Sunday River and Sugarloaf also have installed computerized ticket dispensers to let skiers purchase tickets at home, and then simply pick them up at a dispenser with their phone rather than waiting in line at a ticket counter in the resort lodge.

Sunday River also is installing an ordering system in its restaurants, allowing customers to make payments from cell phones and have meals brought to them elsewhere in the lodge, possibly at a remote location such as a conference room.

But the social part of skiing known as après ski will be far different, since restaurants and bars attached to them can’t allow crowding. At Sunday River, exactly how social distancing will play out at the resort’s three base lodges, two hotels and inn – which house a half dozen restaurants – is unknown, said Karolyn Castaldo, Sunday River’s communications director.

Both Sugarloaf and Sunday River suspended the sale of season passes in June as they plan for modifications.

“We are planning on being open. Guests will see changes as soon as the snow flies,” Castaldo said. “It will not be a typical season. But nothing is typical right now.”

Both Sunday River and Sugarloaf closed several weeks early last winter – on March 15 – when their parent company, Michigan-based Boyne Resorts, made the decision to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Sunday River plans to open for the season – and to be fully staffed. Press Herald file photo

Full-time and seasonal staff were furloughed at Sunday River. Sugarloaf’s seasonal employees were paid a week’s wage, laid off, and directed on how to obtain unemployment benefits, Austin said. Sunday River did not apply for federal Payroll Protection Program funds, but Sugarloaf received $1.8 million from the federal program.

After Gov. Janet Mills allowed restaurants and lodging for Maine residents to restart on June 1, most of those amenities opened at the two Maine ski resorts, but several outdoor rental activities have remained closed.

At Sunday River, one of two resort hotels normally open in the summer started welcoming guests on July 1, and just three of five restaurants opened. Sunday River’s golf course is open, but the resort’s scenic chairlift rides, disc golf course, bungee trampoline and climbing wall are closed, and lessons for paddle sports and archery are not being offered. Its two retail shops remained closed.

Castaldo said the gradual reopening has allowed the resort staff to thoroughly learn all COVID safety guidelines before the heavy winter traffic arrives – half of which comes from out of state at the Newry resort. Sunday River will be fully staffed this winter, with the expectation the virus safety requirements will require more work, Castaldo said. The state has yet to release its guidelines for ski resorts.

At Sugarloaf, which gets 40 percent of skiers from out of state, three resort-owned restaurants opened this summer in addition to several that are independently owned. The golf course is open and the resort is offering paddle-sport rentals and disc golf. But several summer activities remain closed, such as zipline tours, Segway tours, scenic lift rides and guided adventures.

Sugarloaf’s Reggae Fest was canceled for the first time in 31 years because of the virus outbreak. Photo by Jamie Walter, Courtesy of Sugarloaf

When Sugarloaf closed in mid-March, it marked its earliest closing date in at least 30 years – and possibly the earliest in the ski mountain’s 70-year history, Austin said. It’s Reggae Fest, which draws several thousand each April, was canceled for the first time in 31 years.

But this winter, Sugarloaf plans on being fully staffed.

At Maine’s smaller ski areas, delivering a safe indoor experience in the brisk winter may be more of a challenge. Those ski areas have smaller lodges and less capital to invest in major architectural changes, said John Herrick, general manager at family owned Lost Valley in Auburn.

Lost Valley expanded its trails last year by 40 percent, and it plays host to a customer base that is 90 percent from Maine, so out-of-state visitors during the pandemic are less of a concern. But the ski area also caters to many school groups. If children are not in school, or taking buses to events, that could affect skier visits. Herrick wondered if Lost Valley will need to invest in new equipment to set up a kitchen or dining area outside. Such large-scale changes would be difficult for a small mountain, he said.

The Camden Snow Bowl plans to open this winter after closing early in March in reaction to the virus outbreak. Photo courtesy of Camden Snow Bowl

“I hope we don’t (close). There’s always that chance,” Herrick said. “I think we will do whatever we can to make sure we are open. We’re not going to make any moves until the October-November time frame, because of the expense in making changes. But we can turn on a dime faster than the big resorts.”

The Camden Snow Bowl, owned by the town of Camden, also is figuring out how to operate inside the small lodge safely. But Holly Anderson, the Snow Bowl’s assistant director, said plans will be made to address onsite sales, equipment rentals, food service, race programming and the much-needed warm-up environment in the lodge. She added that the Snow Bowl staff has helped to safely conduct the town’s parks and recreation summer day camp since June 20. And that offered a good trial run.

“We hope to make an initial announcement about our operation plans for the season soon,” Anderson said. “In general, (we) believe that people will be looking at small ski mountains as a safer option this winter. Meaning, we anticipate being busy.”

At Black Mountain in Rumford, the wide trails and glades already keep skiers spread out across the mountain, said the ski area’s communication director, Deanna Kersey. Accommodating guests in the lodge – again – remains the big unknown.

“It’s hard to gauge what we’re supposed to do when we don’t know what’s expected of us,” Kersey said of the state’s upcoming COVID-19 guidelines.

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CORRECTION: This story was updated at 12:35 p.m. on Aug. 6, 2020, to correct that Sugarloaf received $1.8 million from the federal Payroll Protection Program. 


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