Yes, a COVID-19 vaccine is here — but the pandemic is still going strong, and winter 2020/2021 is shaping up to be another season best spent social distancing. So where does that leave my favorite winter activities: skiing and snowboarding? Both can be done while social distancing outdoors, so is it safe to hit the slopes?
This sort of question — "is it safe to ________ during COVID?" — rarely has a yes or no answer, says Jessica Malaty Rivera, MS, infectious disease epidemiologist and science communication lead at The COVID Tracking Project. In general, she says the risk of contracting the virus while skiing and snowboarding is pretty low. You can easily keep your face covered and stay six feet away from others, after all. But if you're expecting to eat indoors at the resort, for instance, that would increase your risk again.
If you're aching to hit the slopes this year, here's what Rivera suggests considering, in order to weigh your risks and protect yourself.
Stick to local mountains
This should go without saying, but don't fly across the country to spend the weekend at a mountain. "We should not be encouraging people to be flying to go on vacation," Rivera says. "Non-essential travel should be limited." Not everyone lives near a ski-worthy mountain, we know. But for this year, stick to places within driving distance.
Scope out the mountain's safeguards
Call your local slopes and ask: What are they doing to protect their visitors? Shawn Hauver, managing director of Camelback Resort in Pennsylvania, says that all mountain visitors will need to purchase lift tickets, passes, and ski rentals in advance online to minimize contact with others, for instance. Facial coverings will be required in all public spaces, including while you're riding lifts. Lifts will also be separated by household — meaning that you won't be riding with a stranger. Sanitizing stations will also be present at the top and bottom of each lift. Those are exactly the kind of precautions you should be looking for at the mountain near you.
Avoid any lines
This is one part of skiing and snowboarding that would put you in closer contact with people outside your COVID bubble. "For the most part, what we want to avoid people being stagnant and waiting in line," Rivera says. Try calling ahead to make sure that your favorite mountain is doing timed entry or limited admission for the mountain. Consider asking the resort how they're managing ski lift and gear rental lines. "All these things need to be audited before you make a decision," Rivera says.
Make a safe après-ski plan
The availability of indoor dining and activities will partially depend on state laws. For example, Camelback is in Pennsylvania, which has banned indoor dining until January 4, 2021 at least, so they're planning to offer food trucks and heated tents instead —which, it's worth saying, also aren't totally safe. Even if the state you're skiing in allows indoor dining and other activities like it, Rivera suggests packing your own snacks and meals and eating outdoors or in the car. Eating indoors is considered a high-risk activity right now, Rivera says.
Speaking of skipping indoor dining... "The risk is really when you're in common spaces with other people," Rivera explains. "We know prolonged indoor time is high risk, so it's an extra reminder to be wearing your masks on and off the mountain." She suggests only heading inside for things that are absolutely essential, like a bathroom visit or quickly purchasing a refreshment at a concession stand, and hurrying back outside as quickly as possible.
Wear your mask the whole time
Wear an actual face mask, not a super-breathable buff. Yes, you might get a little sweaty, and when you're alone, you can certainly pull it down and take a few gulps of the invigorating mountain air. But focus on the positive: You get to enjoy your favorite winter activity. If it takes covering a your face to make it happen, it's more than worth it.