My friends are planning a ski trip, but we can't agree how to do it safely. What do the experts say?

My friends are planning a ski trip, but we can't agree how to do it safely. What do the experts say?
Saariselka, Finland.Reuters
  • Skiing is a relatively low-risk pandemic activity, as it's outdoors, already involves face coverings, and skis can be a natural social-distancing tool.
  • Consider what you most love about the trip and whether there are alternatives.
  • Keep a close eye on transmission rates in the origin and destination communities, and keep in mind how you might impact the ski town you're visiting.
  • Planning any trip right now requires flexible mindsets and reservations, as well as good communication among travelers about what makes them feel safe.
  • Have a coronavirus quandary for Anna? Submit it anonymously here.

Dear Anna,

My college friends meet up for a ski trip every February. There are six of us, spread across three cities, and differing opinions around how safe the trip will be, how fun it could be if we do it safely (no apres-ski bar deals or hot-tubbing with cute strangers), and whether we should do it at all.

On the one hand, we are all desperate for fresh mountain air and the company of great friends - or frankly, the company of anyone other than those in our respective households. On the other hand, I doubt we'll all be vaccinated by then and know we should be responsible to the local community.
Can you help us break out of our planning standstill?

- Casey, Seattle

Dear Casey,

Sounds like a glorious trip, and a lovely tradition, but next year's run, if completed, will certainly come with a lot more moguls.

A relatively safe downhill adventure isn't impossible, but it will be tough. You'll need to dedicate lots of time to researching and re-researching as case rates and restrictions change, and ensure that everyone involved has compatible definitions of what's safe. Skiing itself is a relatively low-risk pandemic activity, and planning it can give you a mental-health boost, giving you something to look forward to.

In fact, my colleague, healthcare editor Lydia Ramsey Pflanzer, who lives in Denver, told me her recent excursion to Breckenridge was the first time during the pandemic she felt "normal," as skiers are used to wearing face coverings and skis provide natural social distance in lift lines.

Plus, depending on transmission rates in their areas, ski resorts have established safety protocols like limiting the number of people on the mountain, enforcing mask-wearing and social distancing in lift lines, closing indoor dining, and discouraging people from different households from riding on the same chair lift, Glen Mays, a professor at the Colorado School of Public Health and avid skier, told me.

"It appears the ski industry is really taking this seriously, and there's potential they'll be able to keep skiing open with vigilant adherence to those practices," he said. Here's what to keep in mind as your pals attempt to plan your reunion.

Don't count on a vaccine, so you need to quarantine correctly and get tested

Since your crew sounds young and healthy, you're right that it's unlikely you'll all have received both doses of a vaccine - and waited the expected couple weeks for the shots to reach their full efficacy - by February. It may be late May by the time everyone who wants a vaccine gets one.

So, everyone should agree to quarantine for 10 to 14 days ahead of your travels. Some lodges are requiring documentation of negative tests too, Mays said. Even if yours doesn't, it would be a good idea to get tested at your destination since you could pick up COVID-19 along the way.

Can those of you who live in the same cities stay in the same cabins, rather than renting out one big one? Speaking of rentals, make sure you book flights, car rentals, and lodging with good cancellation policies.
While things are looking up in the US, the vaccine rollout and general COVID fatigue could give folks a false sense of security, keeping rates high well into February. A trip in March or April will likely be safer, but there are no guarantees then, either.

Consider the destination community

Keep your eye on rates in both your community and the one you're traveling to. Your destination may see such spikes that it's forced to shut down, or it may get the virus under control and restrict outsiders - for good reason.

Unknowingly bringing the virus into a small community with an already-stressed healthcare system is the worst-case scenario, Alan Morgan, the CEO of the National Rural Health Association, previously told me. "Not only are you taxing the local community by being there, you're bringing the problem in with you."

Don't forget to consider your physical health, too. If you, like me, have been a whole lot more sedentary in 2020, jumping into an aggressive ski trip could be a recipe for injury - and yet another burden on the local clinics.

My friends are planning a ski trip, but we can't agree how to do it safely. What do the experts say?
Skiers and snowboarders head down a run underneath the American Eagle lift at the Copper Mountain ski area March 13, 2020.Andy Cross/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images
Even if you're technically allowed to enter the region, you may not be welcomed. Remember what happened this past spring? One woman told me when she and her family took their planned spring break trip planned to an area of British Columbia with less than 2,000 residents, locals tried to barricade the highway to prevent tourists from entering. In another California ski resort community, Mammoth Lakes, the tone toward outsiders was downright violent, the Sacramento Bee reported. "I'm really concerned about the level of vitriol and xenophobia," Stacy Corless, a Mono County Supervisor, told the publication. "I'm worried someone is going to get shot."

Things could certainly be different this spring, as ski towns adapt to keep locals both employed and protected. "This is an example of an industry being very adaptive, learning from prior experience, and taking research very seriously," Mays said.

Use 'I statements' to move along the discussion with your friends

Your predicament isn't just practical. It's also emotional and relational, with different friends holding different views about what's safe or not. To have more productive conversations, encourage everyone to stick to "I" statements, sharing only how they feel without judging others or trying to convince them to feel the same way.

"Everyone has a slightly different assessment of what is safe and what is not," Julie L. Pike, a licensed psychologist in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, previously told me. "The most important thing about boundaries is that we can set them without anger or trying to convince other people of the validity of our needs."

Talk about what you each most appreciate about your annual gatherings. If it's the crap-shooting during apres-ski specials after short days on the slopes, spa time, and flirting with singles on chair lifts, maybe this isn't your year. Better to send everyone bubble bath and whiskey, and clear your calendars for a raucus Zoom reunion.

If it is the skiing together, but you can't agree on what that looks like that feels both safe and worthwhile to everyone, it may also not be your year, or at least everyone's year.

When it comes down to it, only you can make a decision for you, whether that simply means abstaining from sharing lifts with solo travelers, getting your own Airbnb and only joining your pals outdoors, or forgoing the trip altogether. If your buddies take your decision personally, take a deep breath.
"Everyone gets to have their feelings, and we don't need to fix it for them," Pike said. "Usually people just need a little bit of time to process their disappointment or sadness."

Senior health reporter Anna Medaris Miller is here to help you make decisions about living life in the current "normal," which is anything but. Drawing on her in-depth reporting on the pandemic; connections with medical, mental health, and public health experts; and own life and common sense, she'll help you get through coronavirus quandaries big and small. Submit your questions for Anna anonymously here.