Area ski resorts booming with plenty of snow, open-air recreation in time of COVID-19

Ethan Melloy added another layer to his clothing on a bitterly cold but brightly sunny recent day at Sundown Mountain Resort outside of Dubuque.

“I’ve been here four or five times already (this year),” Melloy said. “The experience is awesome.”

Melloy, 14, of Solon, Iowa, is among a growing number of snowboarders and skiers packing local ski slopes during a winter of abundant natural snow and limited indoor recreational opportunities due to COVID-19.

“People want to get outside,” said Jeff Hanley. “They want to be in the fresh air, and you can socially distance on skis — you’ve got things on your feet that keep you away from other people.”

Hanley, of Dubuque, has been a ski patrol member at Sundown for the past 25 years. He rarely has seen the slopes be as popular as they are this winter.

“I’m there (on the hill) on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and I have seen at least a 30% increase in our crowds,” Hanley said. “It has been spectacular.”

Mike Murphy, general manager of Chestnut Mountain Resort outside of Galena, Ill., said his slopes also have seen an approximately 30% increase in visitors this year over the 2019-2020 season.

“We’re having a pretty good go at it,” he said. “The snow (this winter) had been a help, and what really has helped were the moderate temperatures we had until this week.”

The opportunity to ski has drawn customers from throughout the region and beyond, Murphy said.

“We had some Arkansas people here (recently),” he said.

Illinois restrictions related to COVID-19 have kept Chestnut’s indoor restaurants closed, but Murphy said the resort has adapted.

“We created a couple of outdoor eating areas, and we have some picnic tables out on nicer days,” he said. “And we do offer room service for guests staying with us.”

Chestnut has 100 guest rooms, and Murphy said occupancy has been good. The resort has given guests an opportunity to work a little and ski a little.

“Our midweek business has picked up dramatically because people have been working from home,” he said.

Chestnut’s COVID-19 policies include occupancy limits in buildings and on chairlifts.

“We’re limiting ticket sales to limit capacity (on the slopes),” Murphy said.

The resort requires face coverings and social-distancing measures in all of its indoor areas, in lift lines and on chairlifts.

Chestnut also is limiting occupancy in its rental shop, where equipment is sanitized after every use.

Mark Gordon, Sundown’s general manager, said the numbers of snowboarders and skiers have taken him by surprise since the resort opened for business in early December.

“We were planning for 100 people and we got 200 people. Then, we planned for 200 and got 400,” Gordon said of the progressively larger turnout on the slopes. “We have just had a lot more people that wanted to get out and ski. It’s been amazing. We have seen a fuller parking lot than for many years.”

Sundown’s COVID-19 safety precautions include requiring visitors to wear face coverings when they enter a building or are lined up for chairlifts.

“We also cap the number of people in our lodges,” Gordon said.

That capacity limit includes attendance at live music performances Sundown hosts in its north lodge.

“We started out having one band on a Saturday night,” Gordon said. “That morphed into bands on Saturday and Sunday, and that morphed into Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We have an open floor plan in the north lodge, so we took out some additional dividers (to add more venue space). People like it.”

Sundown also launched an online registration system that allows people to get their rental equipment outside. Gordon said the system enables guests to hit the slopes within minutes of arriving at Sundown while also reducing the number of people in line for rentals indoors.

“That has been a game-changer for us,” Gordon said.

Hanley said he “floats all over the hill” in his role, which has included selling items in a shop and operating a chairlift.

“This year, we’ve had some great customers from out of town,” he said. “We had a group from Hannibal, Mo. (recently) — all 15-year-old girls. I talked to their parents later in the day, and they said (the girls) had one of their best times in the past year. They took a lesson, got on our hill and had fun.”

Melloy said Sundown is perfect for him.

“I snowboard, and I’m new to this,” he said. “What I like (about Sundown) is, you can start off easy and it gets progressively harder.”