The ski season at Titcomb Mountain is nearly a week away from beginning, but Seth Noonkester, the mountain’s general manager, said the year already has an unusual feel to it.

The first winter with COVID in mind was bound to have that effect.

“This season, everything feels new again,” he said. “Every operation gearing up for the season, just factoring in guidelines, factoring in additional safety thoughts, is making everything new. We’re not all able to just do what we’ve typically been doing.”

Opening day for many mountains and resorts is coming up — some, like Sugarloaf, have already opened — and there’s been more than snowmaking on managers’ minds. The pandemic has forced ski areas to adjust to safety mandates, particularly in lodges and lift lines, with an emphasis on limiting the opportunities for skiers to be indoors and in close proximity to each other.

Those changes meant either building new temporary facilities or finding ways to reroute traffic at the mountain, and planning for many ski areas began in the summer, with further clarification coming when the National Ski Areas Association released its “Ski Well, Be Well” guidelines for the winter in September.

“It’s been a lot of work for us,” said Ethan Austin, the director of marketing and communications for Sugarloaf. The state’s largest resort opened Nov. 21. “It was an entire summer worth of planning and building, everything from little things like plexiglass screens in front of sales agents, all the way to … a temporary building that’s like a warming hut up by our on-mountain restaurant.”

Sam Jones uses an impact driver while installing t-bars to a ski lift at Titcomb Mountain on Thursday. The ski area opens Dec. 19. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

The biggest changes occurred in the ski lodges.

“That’s a tough one to get around,” Mt. Abram general manager Greg Luetje said. “The lodge has always been the hub. … (You’re used to) opening up the lodge door and seeing a couple hundred people packed into the place, kids and families and coolers and boots all over the place. It’s a great thing to see, and we want it back. But this year, for sure, we’re not able to have it.”

Concerns with indoor gathering forced mountains to require masks inside, spread out tables and reduce capacity. That affects dining during the day, but also skiers who use the lodge to put on and store equipment and who go inside for rentals or ticket purchases. Tickets and passes are being sold either online or via a window outside, and skiers are urged to gear up in their cars instead.

“All of our restaurants are reduced capacity. The base lodge normally during the winter is really busy with people who kind of camp out there for the day,” Austin said. “We’re not able to do that this year, just because of the capacity limits. So people kind of have to base their day out of their car.”

At Mt. Abram, part of the plan was to make it easier to bypass the lodge from a preparation standpoint. Parking was re-arranged and new space was added to put skiers closer to the mountain and a T bar was set up to bring skiers up to the base, enabling skiers to quickly go back and forth from their cars.

Mt. Abram, which plans to open Dec. 26, has also set up warming huts and tents outside, giving more people a chance to escape the cold.

“We’re trying to get as much ski-to-your-vehicle or ski-close-to-your-vehicle access (as we can), which is a big, big deal for people this year,” Luetje said. “Giving people access to their vehicles, where all their stuff is going to be, was a big focus for us.”

Titcomb, which opens Dec. 19, and Black Mountain, which is planning on the 26th, have utilized takeout windows so skiers don’t have to go inside for meals. Titcomb will also have outdoor fire pits and a temporary heated dome for skiers who need to warm up, and will make ordering food and tickets online an option.

“We were very old school,” Noonkester said.

A secondary lodge has been constructed at Titcomb Mountain ski area in Farmington, Maine. The ski area is set to open Dec. 19 and the new lodge, which will be used with the primary lodge, provides extra space for racers, skiers, parents and others to keep warm. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

At Sugarloaf, shuttles from the parking lots to the base are reduced to half capacity. The changes extend to lift lines, where skiers will have to wear masks or have their faces covered, and ride up with only others from their group.

“If you arrive together, you can ride together,” Noonkester said.

In an effort to cut down on crowding, high school meets will likely be held on slower days.

“I think that’s there’s going to be very few — not that we have a ton — but I think there’s going to be very few Saturday meets,” Maranacook Alpine coach Ronn Gifford said. “We’re going to look at something between 75-85 kids at every race. Then, you’ve got coaches, you’ve got officials, and you need to stay under 100 (total people). A normal KVAC race at Titcomb, or a race at Black, we’d have double that.”

The changes put in place for the season were costly and will reduce business, and ski areas are going into the season prepared to take a financial punch.

“We’re taking some hits this year, for sure, and all of the ski areas are. It’s not just us,” Luetje said. “We know we’re not going to make money. … There are a lot of areas where we’re spending where we’re probably not going to get that money back. But we very much want to open up for our community.”

Noonkester said there was some thought early on at Titcomb about not opening for the season.

“We were on the fence. We went into the season knowing we were going to take a hit,” he said. “We went into this season just weighing ‘do we just close,’ to be conservative and not take a hit. But we felt … the weight of what we’re offering the community was speaking louder than trying to save a year of taking a hit.”

The flip side could be that, as was the case with golf in the summer, more people will head to the slopes with fewer available ways to spend their free time.

“That’s our hope, and we’re optimistic that that is going to happen because we saw it in the summertime,” Noonkester said. “On a plus side, we’ve seen an increase in new memberships. … We are in hopes that we see an increase in new visits and stuff like that as well.”

“I would think that’d be the hope across the entire industry,” Black Mountain marketing manager Deanna Kersey said. “If anything positive were to come of this, it’s that it would be one of those situations that gets people off the couch.”

(Staff writer Dave Dyer contributed to this story.)

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