The Hibbard family – Everly, Jay and Mac – sit inside a shack, dubbed “Ziggy,” that Jay Hibbard built on the back of their pickup truck to enhance their safety on weekend ski trips to Sunday River. The Hibbards, including Jay’s wife, Laurie, use the shack to change, eat and warm up away from the crowds at the ski area.

NEWRY — Laurie and Jay Hibbard didn’t want to miss the ski season with their two young children, even during the coronavirus pandemic. But they wanted to stay safe. That’s why Jay built a homemade shack on the back of their pickup truck, to give his family a place to change, eat and warm up at Sunday River, where they ski most weekends.

“We don’t feel great about it,” he said of the crowds. “That’s why I built this. We pulled our 6-year-old out of ski school. There are just too many unknowns.”

Indeed, Maine’s Alpine ski areas look very different this winter. Lodges are practically empty, people eat at picnic tables outside, and the majority of people “boot up” at their vehicles in the parking lot. Skiers and snowboarders are greeted by signs reminding them to social-distance, to wear a mask, and not to store belongings in the lodge. Some resorts, such as Sunday River and Sugarloaf, have limited ticket sales on some weekends and holidays in an effort to reduce crowding.

Despite these efforts, some skiers like the Hibbards remain apprehensive about their safety. In particular, they worry about the influx of out-of-state visitors, who in a typical winter represent 40 to 50 percent of the customers at Maine’s largest ski areas. Some nonresidents stay at second homes in Maine where they can meet Maine’s requirement to quarantine for 10 days (for all except Vermont and New Hampshire residents) before hitting the slopes. But others drive up for the day from Greater Boston, some of them failing to abide by Maine’s health regulations.

Of 13 out-of-state skiers and snowboarders interviewed by a reporter two Sundays ago at Sunday River, Mt. Abram and Shawnee Peak, six did not receive a negative COVID test in the previous 72 hours, which is required by Maine as an alternative to quarantining. Five of the six said they would get tested when they returned to Massachusetts in order to meet state health requirements there. 

“There’s no checks and balances to ensure people visiting Maine are quarantining at their house or getting tested,” said Paul Trufant of Kennebunk as he booted up at his car in the Sunday River parking area. “And there are a lot of out-of-staters here.”

BUSTLE IN THE PARKING LOT

Downhill skiing in Maine has an estimated economic impact of $1 billion annually, according to Dirk Gouwens, executive director of the Ski Maine Association. That figure is based on an estimated 1.3 million skiers and snowboarders annually. The number of customers is likely down this winter during the pandemic, but ski areas in Maine continue to draw crowds.

In the Sunday River parking lot on Jan. 17, a steady stream of SUVs, cars and pickup trucks carried skiers and snowboarders on a blue-sky Sunday. And by the look of it, the scene suggested this was a community committed to following the new health protocols.

From left, Brice Rader, Brendan O’Donnell, both of Dover, N.H., and Elizabeth Mulcahy of Acton dress for a Saturday of skiing in the Sunday River parking lot in Newry last weekend. The group comes multiple times a month and said they think this year it seems busier than usual. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

People arrived and pulled out lawn chairs to put on their boots behind their vehicles. Most wore masks as they did so. Then dozens of skiers and snowboarders wearing masks and carrying equipment made their way toward the lodge, where they funneled into a tunnel that led to the lifts.

Behind the lodge, a half dozen lift lines with people spaced 5-to-6 feet apart showed masks and neck gaiters are universal in skiing now. And the lodge is no longer a gathering spot. By midmorning, the inside of the South Ridge Base Lodge looked like a ghost town, while a half dozen visitors got takeout at a cafeteria window to eat at picnic tables outside. 

Down the road at Mt. Abram, the scene was much the same, just on a smaller scale. Some skiers rested inside one of three primitive huts built of clear plastic glass – custom-made for the pandemic. Others lounged at picnic tables. Only a few walked through the lodge at any one time. COVID-related signs were posted on doors and inside at the cafe. 

An hour away at Shawnee Peak in Bridgton, a crowd of dozens of people ate outside during the lunchtime hour – seated mostly at about 30 picnic tables spaced out around the lodge. About a dozen groups sat inside the lodge at alternating tables spread through two large rooms. Takeout food was ordered from a window. And beside a brand-new side deck, a food truck promised on its side: “Yep, we’ve got beer, too.” 

Masks were universally worn on the mountain by those not eating. One snowboarder standing near a lift had his neck gaiter pulled down, but pulled it up when approached by a reporter.

People wait in line for the lifts at Sunday River on Saturday, Jan. 23. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At all three ski areas there were out-of-staters who said they were tested three days before traveling to Maine, or had quarantined after arriving and staying weeks ago.

Josh Stewart of Duxbury, Massachusetts, said he, his wife and two children get tested every week before coming to their house near Sunday River – then follow a new routine when they ski. Josh Stewart drops his wife and children, all dressed in ski boots, in front of the base lodge. Then Stewart parks and gets dressed at the car. They eat lunch together at their house afterward.

“It’s a little less social, maybe. It’s nice to have a beer at the pub with other skiers. But we’re happy we’re here,” Stewart said. 

CONCERN OVER DAY TRIPPERS

But not all nonresident skiers and snowboarders visiting Maine this winter are following state health requirements.

Two young men from Boston – Jacob Nelson and David Losordo – said they were not tested before driving up to Sunday River on Jan. 17, but would get tested when they returned home. Nelson said the biggest drawback to the season was having to buy lift tickets at Sunday River in advance. 

“You can’t just come up and buy it that day,” Nelson said. 

College students Sydney Caplow and Tate Gordon of Boston and Andrei Caplow, a high school student there, did not get tested before traveling to Maine and planned, instead, to get a COVID test when they returned home.

“Maine is not as strict as Massachusetts,” Gordon said. “Massachusetts is cracking down.”

The prevalence of COVID-19 cases is higher in eastern Massachusetts – where many day trippers outside Maine come from – than in southern Maine, though not dramatically so. The 14-day average of daily COVID cases per 100,000 residents in Suffolk County, where Boston is located, was 62 through Jan. 28, according to a New York Times database of all counties in the U.S. The average in Essex, Middlesex and Norfolk counties in the Bay State ranged from 46 to 65.

Oxford County, where Sunday River and Mt. Abram are located, averaged 47 cases per 100,000 residents over the same 14 days, while Androscoggin, Cumberland and York counties in Maine ranged from 38 to 49. Neighboring counties in New Hampshire, where residents are not required to quarantine after entering Maine, showed a range of 44 to 55 in Rockingham, Strafford and Carroll counties.

Skiers make their way down the mountain at Sunday River on Saturday, Jan. 23.  Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Still, many Mainers worry about the relaxed approach to COVID-19 some skiers take, particularly out-of-state visitors.

“I wonder about if they are doing the right thing,” said Christine Stokes of New Gloucester, who brings her 5-year-old son to ski school at Sunday River on weekends. “But I’m doing my part. I’m keeping my distance and masking up. That’s all you can do; otherwise you’ll just sit at home in the fetal position.”

And Sam Myrdek of Portland and Maddie Poulin of Gorham, who skied at Mt. Abram on Jan. 17, prefer skiing at smaller ski areas because those mountains seem to draw fewer out-of-staters.

“It feels comfortable here,” Poulin said of Mt. Abram. “They have signs when you get off the lifts reminding you to wear your mask. Everyone is giving each other space.”

In the medical community, views are mixed on how safe downhill skiing is during the pandemic.

“The risk is when you go inside to warm up, and take your mask off and are in closer proximity to others than when you are skiing on the mountain,” said Dr. Connie Price, chief medical officer at Denver Health in Colorado. “I can’t think of a lower-risk activity – and one of the more normal things to do during the pandemic.”

But at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, officials are not convinced.

“Science shows that nothing is perfectly safe. While research indicates that wearing face coverings properly, staying at least 6 feet apart, washing hands frequently, and avoiding nonessential gatherings can help limit potential spread of the virus, there are no guarantees,” noted Robert Long, the Maine CDC spokesman.

Maine CDC’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, said stretchable masks – like neck gaiters that are commonly in skiing this winter – are porous and do not stop the spread of the virus as effectively has cotton masks do.

Dr. Irina Petrache, the chief pulmonologist at National Jewish Health in Denver – one of the top respiratory hospitals in the country – said there are dangers in Alpine skiing during the pandemic.

Skiers and snowboarders wait in line for the lift at Sunday River. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Petrache, an avid Alpine skier, said if everyone buys into all the protocols, the ski season could be the much-needed respite everyone needs. But in her first 10 days of skiing this winter, Petrache noticed many skiers not wearing masks or wearing them below their nose, which doesn’t help stop the spread of the virus, she said. Petrache also noted some Colorado resorts enforce the use of masks and social-distancing better than others.

“If we don’t follow the rules and enforce the rules and people view masks as a nuisance, I think that mistake could lead to local outbreaks that will close resorts,” Petrache said. “Then the community of skiers will suffer, resorts will suffer, and jobs will be lost. It’s a small price to pay to allow this privilege.”

SKI AREAS GET THE MESSAGE OUT

Last summer, Sunday River reported 50 percent of its visitors were from out of state, while Sugarloaf, which is located farther from Boston, reported about 40 percent of visitors were from outside Maine. This winter, Sugarloaf estimates the percentage of Mainers and nonresidents is more on the order of 75-to-25-percent.

Maine ski areas are not required by the state to have nonresident guests fill out Maine’s “Certificate of Compliance” that requires a guest to vow they received a negative COVID test or quarantine, as lodges and hotels are mandated to do. Instead, many Maine ski areas – including Sunday River and Sugarloaf have signs posted at the chairlifts and throughout the resort asking visitors if they feel sick, have been in contact with someone with COVID, and whether they come from a state that would necessitate quarantining upon arrival in Maine. Visitors who purchase tickets online also are alerted of mandatory COVID protocols through emails.

Skiers and snowboarders are met by a COVID-19 awareness sign at the entrance at Sunday River. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

To help ensure a safe environment, Sunday River has reduced skier visits by limiting ticket sales on weekends and holidays, allowing for half as many skiers and snowboarders at the resort as would normally be there on the busier days, said Karolyn Castaldo, the resort’s spokesperson. Sugarloaf also has reduced tickets on high-traffic days.

Other resorts have a detailed COVID page on their websites. Saddleback provides a link to the “Certificate of Conformation” that the state of Maine requires lodging guests to fill out. In addition, under its mask mandate, Saddleback states: “Guests unwilling to comply with the Maine State and Saddleback Mountain guidelines will be asked to leave Saddleback property.”

Mt. Abram underscores the requirements expected of those traveling to Maine from out of state, by reminding guests that they need to answer “NO” to a series of health questions, including: Did they traveled in the past 14 days outside of Maine?

“As you purchase a ticket, you’re asked these questions,” said Mt. Abram General Manager Greg Luetje. “We are asking people to take ownership and to be good humans. We are not asking for a driver’s license, at least not yet. That may change as things evolve.”

Such safety measures reassure some Maine skiers.

Christian Townsend of Portland has a condo at Sugarloaf and skis there about five days a week. He said the resort’s approach to COVID has been consistent – and skiers have shown a nearly total buy-in, all of which makes him feel safe. Although, Townsend added, he feels safer having a condo to use as a “base camp.”

“You can’t turn around without a sign,” Townsend said. “And there is no chance of someone getting on a lift without being masked up. They won’t let you near the lift without reminding you. Overall, I think skiers are acting responsibly. I think the fact the season was cut so short last year, everyone is so pumped to be able to ski.”


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