North American Ski Industry Nears Total Shutdown as Fight to Prevent COVID-19 Spread Ramps Up

Winter over

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And now we just wait

It started on Twitter as all things now do, with this tweet from Vail shortly after the lifts closed at their Western mountains on Saturday:

Alterra followed shortly, their individual mountains carrying the social load:

As I was preparing to go to sleep that night, I checked Killington’s website one more time. They announced a suspension of operations at 11:45 and posted this half an hour later:

Boyne’s eponymous Michigan mountains announced season (Highlands), and temporary-for-now (Boyne Mountain) closures somewhere in that timeframe, and I expected their big three Northeast mountains to follow shortly. I was kind of shocked when I checked the Sugarloaf snow report Sunday morning and saw that they were still open. Finally, at mid-day, they, along with Sunday River and Loon conceded:

Magic, Mad River Glen, Bromley, Jiminy Peak, Black (N.H.), Pats Peak, Ragged, Windham, Bolton Valley, and the New York State-owned trio of Belleayre, Gore, and Whiteface all closed as of yesterday afternoon. There are probably others. I’m not into exhaustive lists.

Some of these are explicit season closures. Some are “suspensions of operations while we evaluate the situation.” The distinction is likely irrelevant – the chance of any Northeast mountain re-opening this season is almost zero. The snowpack here, with our constant freeze-thaw cycles and rain-snow-sleet-hail-meteor storms, requires constant, intensive maintenance. We all take for granted how good our mountains have gotten at the grooming-snowmaking matrix that keeps the unskiable skiable.

All of this is about to go away. These mountains are about to lose weeks of business, and they are going to cut every cost they can. One of their biggest costs is labor. The focus, once these interim shutdowns stretch past a week or two, will be a controlled shutdown of the mountain for the season. Killington is unlikely to keep groomers and guns running on Superstar just so it can open for three weeks in May. They already lose money in May. They stay open because it is part of their Beast branding and identity. They are not going to do us all this big favor of opening for three weeks in T-shirt season after losing six to eight profitable spring skiing weeks.

Camelback, Smugglers’ Notch, Cannon, Waterville Valley, Bretton Woods, Gunstock, and McCauley were open as of Monday morning if you still want to go skiing (again, there are probably others). I wouldn’t book a condo though – more public spaces are shutting down by the hour, and if any of these lasts until the end of the week I’ll be surprised.

The good thing about ski season is that we’re used to it ending

Berkshire East and Catamount owner Jon Schaefer became, of course, the first ski area operator in the United States to shut down the season as a direct result of COVID-19 concerns last Thursday (Schaefer was a guest on The Storm Skiing Podcast in December). A number of smaller ski areas, as well as Jay Peak and Burke, had followed by Friday.

When I wrote on Saturday morning that I would continue to ski until the lifts stopped spinning, my view was more or less in line with the 450 or so still-open-at-the-time ski areas in the country. This annoyed some people and resonated with others. It was intended to be pragmatic rather than defiant. By booting up at my car and skiing midweek on open slopes and empty chairs, the risk of transmission seemed low. I didn’t explicitly make that point in the essay, but I was attempting to achieve some sort of balance as life tilted slowly toward the unprecedented.

A lot has changed since then. Not only did the entire U.S. corporate ski industry shutter operations, but daily life here in New York City has gone into a sort of wartime posture. Schools are closed until at least April 20. Bars, restaurants, and movie theaters are closed by order of the mayor’s office. Grocery shopping this weekend felt like a mix of group therapy and combat sport. Fearing a transit shutdown and a subsequent Superstorm Sandy-style run on gas, I topped off my tank last night.

There is nothing to do but get in my tube and ride down the river. I’m not going to try to paddle upstream. I was in denial still on Saturday. I’m not any more. For me, ski season is over. I’m OK with that.

I had a great season. I skied 36 days at 25 ski areas in 10 states – good numbers considering where I live and the fact that I have a full-time day job in addition to The Storm. I skied 12 days with my 11-year-old daughter and took my 3-year-old son skiing for the first time. I had some incredible powder days and some memorable adventures. I had hoped to notch another 10 to 15 days. But that’s OK. Part of being a grown-up is acknowledging that what you want and what you can have are not always the same thing.

But I also think it’s OK to say that this sucks. I don’t think it needs to be qualified every single time with a, “but it’s for the greater good.” Some things can be implied. I also think interpreting the speed with which someone arrived at their decision to stop skiing over COVID-19 fears as a mark of personal worth or morality is a mistake. There are a lot of factors accompanying any such choice, from personal experience to worldview to openness to risk to stubbornness to physical condition to the prevailing wisdom of your friends-and-family network. Some people coalesced around this early and good for them, but the public social media shaming of those still fighting the premature end of something they love is a little grating. The season is over and that’s a drag and it’s OK if people are still having a hard time accepting it.

The good thing about ski season is that we’re used to it ending. It’s not like breakfast, where you have to do it every day or you die. It’s not even like hot showers, which are nice to have but not absolutely essential to survival. I would probably give up skiing before I’d give up hot showers. But it’s nice to have both when you can.

Right now, at least the showers and the food are intact. I’m not in the worst situation. My wife and I are fortunate that we can work from home, and our livelihoods are not at immediate risk, unlike friends of mine who work in the service industry – or folks who work in the ski industry and were counting on several more weeks of pay. Vail, for its part, noted that it would pay all full-time and season staff at least through March 22. Other large resort groups made similar promises.

But the consequences will be far larger for the broader economy, which isn’t used to shutting down. The economic fallout from this is probably going to be unlike anything most of us alive have ever seen – we have never shuttered our services- and experiences-based economy on this scale before, or for this duration. The bricks-and-mortar retail economy, already teetering for years on the edge of solvency as online competition grew, may well collapse if sales disappear for weeks or months. Airlines, event operators like Live Nation, gyms – anyplace where people gather or anything that transports them there en masse – are all at enormous risk.

I do also worry about the social fallout – and this was another thing I was trying to get at on Saturday. The dangers of social isolation are well-established. By institutionalizing social distancing, even for a short while, I fear that this most isolated of nations will only turn further inward toward itself. I understand the rationale behind social distancing. Me and my family are doing it. But things that are necessary can have negative unforeseeable consequences.

I know. Stick to skiing. You don’t come here for half-assed economic theorizing. I’ll do my best. But I’m having a hard time caring about skiing right now, and from the leveling off in the number of newsletter sign-ups, I’m guessing pretty much everybody else is too. This feels like a reverse Sept. 11 – on that day, everything happened all at once, and then we reacted. Now, we’re reacting and waiting to see what will happen.

Either way, COVID-19 has everyone’s attention, including mine. I recorded a podcast last Wednesday with the general manager of one of the biggest and most important mountains in the Northeast, and now I don’t know what to do with it. It seems both inappropriate and wasteful to release it now, when no one is looking. It’s a good and vital conversation, and I think a lot of people will want to hear it – in about two months. For now, I am thinking of other ways to engage with this – The Storm will not end with ski season. I have always intended it to be year-round, albeit with a slower offseason cadence.

For now, there’s nothing to do but sink into the moment. I’m not used to this. None of us are. We have never in my lifetime been asked to make a shared sacrifice. After Sept. 11, President Bush told us to go shopping. In the wars that followed, we were never taxed specifically for that and there was no draft. This notion that we would actually have to curtail daily life is something we haven’t experienced together as a nation since probably World War II.

That means I have only experienced this world through books. I have always found it amazing that Americans actually came together like that. Until this week, I had a hard time believing we ever could again. But I think now of this remembrance  from Pete Hamill’s excellent book, A Drinking Life, on growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940s:

At night from the kitchen windows, we could not see New York. There were wartime blackouts, every light in the city extinguished so that German bombers could never find us and so that German submarines couldn’t see the freighters and navy ships as they left New York Harbor. Mayor La Guardia was in charge of all this, talking in his thin squeaky voice over the radio, asking all New Yorkers to cooperate. Everybody did, because almost everybody loved Mayor La Guardia, except one of my aunts, who lost her job when [former mayor] Jimmy Walker lost his. To keep out the light, people began buying blackout shades, which were, of course, black, and on some nights there would be air raid drills, with sirens blaring from the firehouse up the block and air raid wardens walking around in the dark streets shouting orders at the deaf, the careless, or the indifferent.

This went on for the duration of the war. And when it ended, it was a glorious thing:

[The neighbors] had sandwiches and soda bottles and pails of beer and were heading for the roof. …

The roof was as packed as the street during an air raid drill. I saw people from every building on the avenue, and men from the bars, and they were all looking out at the harbor. … The sun was now setting into New Jersey, the sky all red and purple, the skyline beginning to disappear into the darkness. We could hear the foghorns of dozens of ships. And then the sun set, the sky turned mauve and then black. The skyline disappeared as it did every night during the war. For a long time, people murmured to each other in hushed expectant voices.

“What’s going to happen?” I asked. “Why is everyone here?”

“Just wait,” my mother said. “Watch the skyline.”

And then, without warning, the entire skyline of New York erupted into glorious light: dazzling, glittering, throbbing in triumph. And the crowds on the rooftops roared. They were roaring on roofs all over Brooklyn, on streets, on bridges, the whole city roaring for light. There it was, gigantic and brilliant, the way they said it used to be: the skyline of New York. Back again. On D day, at the command of Mayor La Guardia. And it wasn’t just the skyline. Over on the left was the Statue of Liberty, glowing green from dozens of light beams, a bright red torch held high over her head. The skyline and the statue: in all those years of the war, in all the nights of my life, I had never seen either of them at night. I stood there in the roar, transfixed. And then softly, her voice trembling with emotion, my mother began to sing.

It’s that light that we’re all waiting for now, even though we know it may be an awful long ways off.


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The Storm Skiing Podcast is on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, and Pocket Casts. The Storm Skiing Journal publishes podcasts and other editorial content throughout the ski season. To receive new posts as soon as they are published, sign up for The Storm Skiing Journal Newsletter at skiing.substack.com. Follow The Storm Skiing Journal on Facebook and Twitter.

Previous podcasts: Killington & Pico GM Mike Solimano | Plattekill owners Danielle and Laszlo Vajtay | New England Lost Ski Areas Project Founder Jeremy Davis | Magic Mountain President Geoff Hatheway | Lift Blog Founder Peter Landsman | Boyne Resorts CEO Stephen Kircher | Burke Mountain GM Kevin Mack | Liftopia CEO Evan Reece | Berkshire East & Catamount Owner & GM Jon Schaefer| Vermont Ski + Ride and Vermont Sports Co-Publisher & Editor Lisa Lynn| Sugarbush President & COO Win Smith| Loon President & GM Jay Scambio| Sunday River President & GM Dana Bullen| Big Snow & Mountain Creek VP of Sales & Marketing Hugh Reynolds |