The temperature gauge on my dashboard read 40 degrees as I pulled into lot three at Smugglers’ Notch on Sunday, February 28. Leaving my quarter-zip in the car, I made the slushy trek to the Madonna and Sterling Base Lodge to pick up my lift ticket. As I waited in line, I noticed the signs which said: “Please maintain 6 feet,” and “Masks required.” To get my pass, the employee at the ticket booth made me scan a barcode which brought me to a Vermont Travel Attestation form. After filling out the online form on my phone, I was ready to hit the slopes.
The reggae music, double chairlifts and friendly lift operators gave the mountain a local feel, reminding me that this was a community, not just a destination. I enjoyed the panoramic view at the top of the Madonna lift before trying out a mix of groomed and ungroomed trails, darting from blue Catwalk, to double black Freefall, to blue McPherson’s and back to the Madonna lift line.
“Good run?” asked the lift attendant as the chairlift swooped me away.
While Smugglers’ Notch had the same lateral distancing “ghost lines” and COVID signs that I’d seen at other resorts, something was different about this resort’s approach to safety. There seemed to be more signs in more places, which augmented the emphasis on compliance to public safety guidelines. Moreover, every rope had green whiffle balls tied into them at 6-foot intervals, reminding skiers and riders to stay horizontally distanced as well as laterally distanced from each other.
“When I go out with my 5-year-old daughter, she will remind me to stand by the ball. You know it’s working if our kids are helping us,” said Smuggler’s Notch public relations manager Mike Chait.
According to Chait, Smugglers’ Notch managers used the summer as a trial period to find the best public safety strategies. One of those strategies was to keep people informed with abundant messaging. “We decided, let’s increase signage and let’s keep messages consistent from sign to sign,” he said. “That makes the command to wear a mask and social distance impossible to ignore.”
A person can’t even walk into the Madonna Sterling base lodge without a ski pass. “We have someone on staff at all times at the entrance,” said Chait, explaining that the door-duty staff member is responsible for scanning passes to collect contact tracing and capacity limit information every time someone enters the lodge.
When I walked into the lodge, I noticed that this door-duty employee was also policing the flow of traffic, reminding people who trying to flee the lodge through the entrance that the designated exit door was up the stairs.
Some staff at the resort were even on “nose patrol,” as Chait called it, walking around reminding people to pull their masks over their noses.
The safety protocols seem to be working for visitors and staff members alike. According to Chait, only a few staff members have tested positive for coronavirus, and those incidents were related to social gatherings outside of work. “We encourage staff to avoid social gatherings all together. One slogan we use often is, ‘Keep our season safe,’” said Chait, who mentioned that ski- and snowboard-loving staff members were distraught when the mountain was forced to close last March at the beginning of the pandemic.
“At the end of the day, people take their last run and start tailgating there. They’re cooking up burgers, sharing them with other people. The crew that hangs out there are like the people who stay at the music venue long after the band is gone, because they are just enjoying the atmosphere and company so much. It always becomes a big social gathering,” said Chait. “We are encouraging people to use their cars as base lodges, but not like that.”
Chait said many locals have complained about the restrictions on the lot. “We remind our locals that it’s not about our rights, it’s about our safety.”
Putting restrictions on the parking lot was a tough call, as was deciding to limit capacity and lift ticket sales. “We are operating at 50% capacity at a maximum,” said Chait. “We have been putting caps in place and shutting down lift ticket sales.”
The resort has saved some money on payroll having reduced its staffing by 20% this year from the usual 1,200 staff it employs each winter. However, Chait said, that in general “saving money isn’t even part of the conversation. We are just looking out for the safety of our Smugglers’ family.”