Both ski destinations on either side of Smugglers Notch have shifted COVID-19 guidelines for guests in the wake of surging case numbers across the country.

Stowe Mountain Resort and Smugglers’ Notch Resort have adjusted masking policies to reassure guests of their safety despite the spread of the contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Publicly owned by Vail Resorts, Stowe Mountain Resort has long had the stricter guidelines of the two ski destinations and continues to maintain that position. Vail announced Dec. 29 that it would require passengers in gondolas at all its resort locations to wear masks inside them, including the two gondolas at Stowe.

“While gondola rides are short and well-ventilated, our commitment to safety compels us to take further action to combat the spread of COVID-19. We will continue to review our COVID-19 policies and procedures as needed to account for the evolving nature of the pandemic,” said Adam White, the new communications manager for Vail’s Northeast region.

Smugglers’ Notch Resort, privately owned by Bill Stritzler, announced on Monday that it would require masks in all its indoor settings.

Stowe never ended its indoor masking policy and continues to require proof of vaccination to dine at facilities operated by Vail, including the Octagon, Spruce Camp, Cliff House and Mansfield Base Lodge. Employees are required to be vaccinated and submit to regular questioning regarding symptoms and close contact with COVID-19 positive people.

On the Spruce Peak side of the resort there is no vaccination requirement for lodging or dining. Employees are masked and unvaccinated guests are asked to wear a mask.

Employees at Smugglers’ Notch are required to wear masks, but not required to be vaccinated. The resort asks guests and employees alike to self-monitor for COVID-19 symptoms.

“Smugglers’ Notch leadership has daily conversations about the resort’s policy and will adjust as necessary to keep all guests and employees safe,” Stephanie Gorin, communications director at the resort, said.

The two resorts differing approaches to health and safety guidelines exist within a broader ecosystem of tourism, with resorts attempting to balance a promised return to normalcy and returning guests with growing concerns in the wake of surging coronavirus cases in Vermont and across the country.

Over the holidays, 86 employees tested positive for COVID-19 at Killington Resort and Pico Mountain Ski Resort, according to news reports, illustrating the vulnerability of resorts’ workforce in an environment that sees tourists from across the country.

“Just keeping staff and guests safe and healthy are really the top priorities and staffing is a cost issue,” said Molly Mahar, president of Ski Vermont. “Right now, there’s so much community spread of the virus that a lot of employees are needing to be out at this time. So that is sort of adding another layer on top of everything else.”

Mahar pointed out that many ski resorts operated successfully last winter, prior to widespread vaccination against COVID-19, and have continued to employ and evolve the strategies that made them successful, like providing more outdoor eating options and developing outdoor spaces.

Though Mahar and the resorts were glad to see onerous quarantine rules required last season gone with the rise in vaccination, she’s hoping the state will now work to make rapid antigen tests more easily available to staff at resorts to help them identify cases with employees more quickly and to help resort staff access vaccine boosters the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends as the best protection against the Omicron variant.

“It’s clearly important to do everything to keep staff and visitors to resorts healthy and safe, Mahar said, but she also noted that in a particularly stressful time, it’s important to allow people the outlet of skiing and snowboarding.

“A lot of people said to us last year that the time that they were able to get out on the mountain and ski or snowboard really was the time that they felt the most normal and they really cherished that time,” Mahar said, noting that needs to be balanced with safety. “I think we’ve seen evidence of that with key areas changing their policies.”

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(This story was updated Jan. 14, 2021)

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