The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Telski to operate differently this year. (Photo courtesy of Noah Sheedy)

In 33 years of working for Telski, vice president of operations and planning Jeff Proteau has never seen a season as challenging as this one, even amidst dreadfully low snow years.

“The pandemic makes it a lot different,” Proteau said. “We can usually overcome the challenges on the mountain, but this year the pandemic is in addition to those challenges and it’s just so difficult.”

The biggest challenge this season has been the residual effects of contact tracing.

“Contact tracing takes time and we have to send people home to quarantine until they get tested and are cleared,” he explained. “And it’s really disruptive when we lose personnel.”

In spite of Telski’s efforts to have staff work in pods and minimize contact, if staff is contact traced by the county and forced to quarantine, Telski must then hustle to find substitutes and manage the wide ripple effect that impacts ski patrol to lift operators and office personnel.

“I think our biggest number from a contact tracing that identified an overlap with a department pod might have been eight or 10,” Proteau noted.

Telski risk managers are now conducting rapid COVID-19 testing across some 1,200 staff members to get impacted employees back to work as quickly as possible. If employees are contact traced by the county and told to stay home, they are still paid for up to 80 hours.

“This isn’t to say that we’ve had a lot of positive tests among staff. We haven’t. But one positive test can affect eight or 10 people, and it does mean that they have to quarantine and pass testing,” he explained.

In the big picture, especially with mountain operations staff members who can easily respect social distancing outdoors, he says Telski has managed COVID impacts to staffing well.

“But on cold days, when ski patrol has to be inside a workstation, for example, that’s when they end up having to be contact traced,” said Proteau. “Fortunately, we have a large roster of ski patrollers so we have resources from which to draw.”

Another challenge is chairlift loading. On a four-person chairlift, operators may only load two unrelated skiers or snowboarders with space between them. If they prefer, skiers and snowboarders are welcome to ride chairlifts solo.

“We’re not requiring strangers to ride together; rather, we’re asking them if they are willing to ride together,” Proteau noted. “But if lift operators are trying to get chairs loaded and maybe they don’t say the right thing to the right person, somebody might feel that they’ve been asked to ride with someone they didn’t want to ride with. Very rarely do we get comments but we do and we address them.”

Due to public health regulations, there’s also been a major reduction in food and beverage sales. Until Jan. 4, the county was operating under Level Red restrictions, which prohibited all indoor dining. While current Level Orange restrictions don’t impact skiing and snowboarding on the mountain, eating outlets can only operate at 25 percent of indoor dining capacity.  

“On cold days it’s tough when you can’t find a place to get warm and take the kids inside. I think visitors recognize that and we’re losing some skier visits because eating indoors in front of a warm fireplace is often part of the skiing experience,” Proteau explained. “People are traveling here to ski but also to be together with their families.”

Ski school offerings have also been significantly reduced. Telski is only offering half-day group lessons and half- or full-day private lessons. 

“The intent with this modified offering is we are avoiding group lunch breaks due to COVID considerations,” he said. “The full-day privates are flexible on how lunch is handled to avoid unrelated parties eating together.”

While all of Telski’s food and beverage outlets are operating, the venues that traditionally enjoy outdoor dining — Bon Vivant, Alpino Vino, High Camp and Grorrono Ranch, with its big outdoor beach area that’s groomed with spaced tables and chairs — are faring best. Gorrono has also implemented an innovative phone app ordering system where food and beverages can be ordered by cellphone and then delivered to clients at their tables, mainly outdoors. Traditional ordering by standing in line is also available at all on-mountain dining venues.

“The only one we’ve backed off on is Big Billie’s, reducing our options there because there’s not a lot of outdoor space,” said Proteau. “And Allred’s took the biggest hit of all because they don’t have any outdoor dining there.”

When the ski area was forced to close early last March, Telski had to lay some workers off. Fortunately, they hired conservatively for this season to avoid laying off personnel.

“The state doesn’t want to shutdown ski areas,” Proteau said. “What it really comes down to is availability of hospital beds. Statewide, though, infection rates are creeping back down, visitors are complying with rules, and people are starting to get vaccinated. We will be in a pandemic through the rest of ski season. It’s a daily challenge, and we all need to not let our guard down.”