Governor Phil Scott yesterday (Nov 9, 2020) announced that the state of Vermont is suspending a program that allowed people from across the Northeast to visit the state without quarantining if they came from a county with a low rate of coronavirus infection. As of yesterday, only two counties between Maine and Ohio were green and eligible to travel.
Due to raising COVID-19 case counts across the Northeast, effective on November 10, 2020, the State of Vermont has suspended its leisure travel map and implemented a mandatory quarantine for anyone returning or traveling to Vermont.
Essential travel is not affected, but people should only do what they have to before returning home.
A post in the Northeast Skiology Group on Facebook looks in-depth at what that might mean for the upcoming ski season:
Despite every other state in the Northeast showing no signs of placing restrictions that could result in the loss of the ski season, Vermont is dangerously close to reaching that point. Today’s weekly press conference in Vermont led by Governor Scott started off with a focus on travel, which coincided with the state suspending their travel map and requiring a quarantine for any non-essential travel that crosses state lines. The state also announced for the first time compliance checks at lodging facilities, bars and restaurants, and other businesses where people gather and socialize, which would likely include ski resorts should they open.
About that Travel Map
The move by Vermont to suspend their travel map was really a moot point that disappointed maybe 5 people in the entire world that lived in the 2 remaining green counties who were planning on traveling to the state. All but two of Vermont’s own counties would have been restricted from traveling to Vermont under the same standards. This really isn’t different from 4 weeks ago in reality as it was already so restricted that 98% of the Northeast’s population. The bar has been set so high that many have chosen to walk right under it, and no attempt has been made to change guidance to allow for testing to better allow people to cross the state lines like Maine has done for about 6 months with a 72-hour test window. Vermont’s governor is doubling down on their standards, the tone is now worse in this regard, and that’s what is most troubling.
Based on Vermont’s own numbers, they have been at their seasonal low in travel since mid-October, and already depressed from normal all season long. This period actually lasts until Christmas starts bringing skiers to the state in large numbers, kicking off the peak ski season through mid-March. Industry statistics show that lodging is much more depressed than travel itself as people have tended to use Airbnb properties or simply do more day trips when traveling to the state, and of course avoiding Vermont altogether for more travel-friendly areas. Despite the lack of restrictions in neighboring New Hampshire, their own numbers were among the best in the country until recently, just like most places in the Northeast to varying degrees.
The reality is that Vermont’s spike in cases came exactly at the opposite time of interstate travel trends, and it has not been traced back to travelers, but directly to Vermonters socializing with each other just like the majority of cases in every other state. Still, Vermont has effectively chosen to lock itself down to travel while at the same time most other states in the Northeast have increased their own restrictions, but have in many cases chosen to allow most travel to contiguous states without restrictions or with at least a lower bar in order to allow for their economies to function as normally as possible. How Vermont chooses to deal with the pandemic is for Vermont to determine though, and there are no signs of any change of stance except to tighten down further at this time. It is possible that the death blow has already been delivered.
What Does This Mean for Vermont’s Ski Season
There are massive doubts now in Vermont about ski areas being able to operate, at least early in the season. The public stance by the government and what is communicated with the industry may be somewhat at odds, but then again they may not be. There are a very limited number of people who will take the precautions necessary to be able to ski in their state without violating the restrictions, and this is well known. The only real question is will it be tolerated to the extent necessary for ski areas to operate without losing significantly more money than they would if they were to shut down.
Ski resorts presently have a green light to open. They will follow the state’s guidance perfectly I’m sure. Ski resorts however are not the state’s border patrol, and even the state’s own police are prevented by government order from detaining people for the purpose of verifying their travel status. In a very challenging environment in Summit County, CO, Vail has opened Keystone this season at a time when it looks like they have 2 weeks until that county is forced into stay at home orders with closures of all resorts, so why would Vail back off of opening their 3 Vermont resorts in the coming weeks? I do think things will open in Vermont unless the state quickly moves to reverse their now one week old guidance. I don’t know how long this might continue for however.
The situation with infection numbers is predicted to not improve for the foreseeable future, and with the state continuing to step up their efforts, in the very least ski areas are going to need to be extra cautious about creating any problems. It won’t take much, or possibly anything at all to push at least parts of the industry over the edge into shutdowns.
If Vermont’s Ski Industry Closes to Those from Out of State, It Also May Close Entirely
Ski areas lack the ability to validate residency and adherence to quarantine restrictions, in fact the state itself has no ability to validate a quarantine that happens out of state by travelers. The state’s only option in further enforcing travel restrictions would be to set up border checkpoints and/or allow the police to issue citations for violations. While the net effect of this would likely result in few tickets being given out, a step up in enforcement is the type of event that could trigger shutdowns as it would in the very least significantly discourage travel into the state. Vail for instance chose to shut down their two resorts in the Australian state of Victoria over their winter when the major population center of the state was prohibited from travel. Other ski resorts in that state continued to operate until late in the winter when further restrictions prohibited operations at the resorts. This didn’t shut down skiing for all of Australia, but it did stop every Victorian from being able to ski from a lift.
Resorts would be facing a difficult choice between losing more money by continuing to operate than they would by shutting down. Chances are that many, or even most presently are already looking at the reality of losing money by operating, but are choosing to do so in order to keep faithful clientele happy as an investment in goodwill. Most optimism about being able to possibly turn an operational profit at Vermont ski areas vanished last week when the state decided to require ski resorts to become their messengers and pseudo-enforcement for travel restrictions. That move alone surely has caused more people to write-off skiing and riding in Vermont for the time being, and some wonder if they will even be able to reach the very restrictive capacity allowed on their chairlifts.
The bigger problem is that Vermonters could turn heavily on the industry as the source of their problems, and the public backlash may do more to force closures than the government’s direct actions themselves.
So whether by direct government intervention, or by the prospect of severe financial losses from operating, or by public backlash towards both resorts and skiers and riders, the situation looks dire at the moment, and it may look even worse in the coming weeks as infection rates continue to rise everywhere in the Northeast, including Vermont.
No One Has More to Lose from Closures than Vermonters Themselves
Every person living outside of Vermont will have an opportunity to ski elsewhere in the Northeast if Vermont’s ski resorts close, but this option will only legally be available to Vermonters if they quarantine after returning. I’m sure that some ski resorts in Vermont would like to stay open for just Vermonters in an environment where only a few could be busy enough to justify operations on purely in-state traffic, however the stars would need to align just right for that to happen in terms of how the state approaches the matter, and how many resorts might seek to stay in the game. Too many resorts operating would mean too little business to go around.
As far as the impacts to Vermont’s ski industry goes, the big guys will be fine, they have the money to last through the closure of some or even all of their resorts. The independents however don’t necessarily, and they will probably need a rescue, but there are no prospects of that rescue coming. Ski passes would also end up being deferred to the following season, or refunded, and that would put significant pressure on finances going into the following season as well.
As far as the rest of the economy goes, almost 10% of Vermont’s economy is tied in some way to tourism, and much of that to winter tourism. The lodging industry has already suffered through 8 months of enormous strain as well as the food and beverage industry. Seasonal businesses and their employees may not just see their business dry up, but businesses may fail, and those that are employed will lose their income, and possibly their cars and their houses, and even their health insurance. There will be a ripple effect through the entire Vermont economy if their ski season doesn’t happen and it may take years to recover from. Those looking for a lifeline from Congress it seems may not get one, at least until February.
I suppose for now we wait to see how the cards fall. I’m not writing Vermont’s season off, but I assure you the state wants far fewer people, and they would prefer for people to quarantine. How that matches up with the needs of the businesses that seek to operate in this environment is an open question.