With snow came long lift lines at Snowbowl.
But while the highlands saw pristine winter conditions, a worrying trend was unfolding across the state at roughly the same time. In mid-January, public health and hospital officials declared that Arizona had the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the United States.
Meanwhile, Snowbowl was seeing some of its busiest days of the year.
Officials with Snowbowl told the Arizona Daily Sun the resort has policies in place to prevent transmission of COVID-19, although it is hard to tell how keen guests have been to follow them.
“Everything that we're doing up here right now is in accordance with county guidelines, federal health and CDC guidelines,” Li Cui, Snowbowl marketing director, said. “We're posting signs everywhere in the lift lines and our lodges. We're encouraging guests to practice physical distancing and to wear masks.”
Steve Price, who spent an entire day hitting the slopes last week, said he believed resort staff did their best to enforce the rules but admitted some guests had gotten “a little too close” or violated the Snowbowl mask-wearing protocol. Still, Price said he was comfortable with the Snowbowl experience.
“I think what the staff put in place is really good, very safe,” Price said. “I’m not sure the skiers follow the rules. I think they get a little too close at times, especially in the bar lines.”
But the lack of compliance is a real worry for some local healthcare workers who are seeing the effects of the virus firsthand.
A Flagstaff nurse who works closely with COVID-19 positive patients said she was shocked when she recently went up to ski. The nurse, who wanted to remain anonymous because of the hospital’s policies on speaking to the media, said she was “frustrated” by the actions of other guests.
The nurse said that in her view there was essentially no enforcement of policies such as mask wearing and social distancing, and that was hard to stomach giving what she sees every shift at work.
Northern Arizona tribal communities have been especially impacted by the virus, and the nurse said she worries places such as Snowbowl are places the virus is spreading in northern Arizona.
“The [Flagstaff] community is a huge resource for the reservations. That's a concern I have. The reservation has done such an exceptional job of lowering their numbers. This behavior is kind of an insult,” the nurse said. “These people are, you know, going up to Snowbowl, they're drinking in line, they're smoking cigarettes in line and they're refusing to wear their masks.”
An official with Coconino County Health and Human Services said the department has received two reports of COVID-19 noncompliance concerns for Snowbowl during this ski season. County staff has worked with Snowbowl management to develop protocols to address compliance issues.
"CCHHS appreciates Snowbowl quickly addressing the concerns and making appropriate modifications to mitigate the spread of COVID 19," county spokesperson Alexandra Fischer said.
Despite changes to this season’s operations, the nurse said the resort “was not doing enough” and expressed concern regarding Snowbowl’s policies and enforcement. From their perspective, local facilities, such as medical centers, are following strict protocol to mitigate transmission, leading them to question why “Snowbowl is the exception.”
This season, the resort implemented new safety guidelines based on recommended social distancing practices from government officials, Cui said, and the resort plans to follow any recommendations made by the county on operations.
One of those policies has been to limit capacity for the number of skiers who can be on the slopes at any one time. There is indeed a swath of new one-star reviews on Google from skiers who have been turned away at the bottom of Snowbowl Road after the resort reached capacity.
The Snowbowl website also informs guests that a refusal to comply will result in a loss of skiing and riding privileges for one or more days, although it is unclear how often that has occurred.
Daily Sun reporter Adrian Skabelund contributed to this article.