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French ski season begins under threat of COVID-19

The 2020-2021 ski season is officially underway in France, with select high altitude slopes open for business despite surging COVID-19 cases across the country.

Ski lifts going up the Grande Motte glacier at Tignes carried their first passengers of the season on Saturday, with new rules in place to help prevent a virus outbreak.

Face masks are mandatory on lifts and shuttle busses, as well as inside equipment rental shops. After the 2019-2020 season was cut short by the pandemic in March, resort managers are banking on those health protocols to keep skiers and snowboarders out on the slopes all winter long.

“We tested all the health protocols that we’ve put in place, including masks on ski lifts,” said Tignes Marketing Director, Stephie Dijkman.“There’s social distancing of course, there’s sanitizer everywhere, and the lifts are being cleaned regularly. We do recommend people to test themselves before coming out just to make sure that there are no outbreaks whilst here.”

Winter sport enthusiasts are likely to find these types of measures at any of France’s 250 ski resorts this season. But keeping the virus off of the mountain could prove difficult if case numbers continue to surge at lower altitudes. Daily infection numbers in France smashed records this week, with authorities confirming 30,621 new cases in a 24-hour period on Thursday.

France’s ski industry took a significant hit when the pandemic’s first wave of infections brought a premature end to the 2019-2020 season. That led to a 16% drop in total lift ticket sales compared to 2018-2019. Resorts are expecting the financial struggle to continue, with fewer foreign tourists expected to travel for skiing this winter.

“Currently we’re looking at 30% less business this season,” said Dijkman. “But we hope that the second wave of covid slows down and that borders will reopen soon.”

Businesses such as restaurants, bars and hotels are also preparing to feel the pinch, with virus restrictions set to change France’s après-ski traditions.

“After-ski bars and partying are over for sure, that’s clear,” said restauranteur Jean-Michel Bouvier, the owner of Panoramic on the Grand Motte Glacier. “People just need to respect the rules for everybody’s sake. Only six people at each table, we have to be careful in the evenings, that’s it.”

Those restrictions will be vital for any resort looking to avoid the reputation damage that a virus outbreak can inflict on a ski destination. One of Europe’s first “super-spreader” events of the pandemic broke out at Austria’s Ischgl ski resort in March. The resort was blamed for failing to contain the outbreak, and is now being sued over its handling of the incident. France’s ski industry and its 18,000 workers are hoping the health protocols in place this season will be enough to avoid any similar incident.

In addition to Tignes, one other French resort has opened its doors. Glacier skiing is available at Les Deux Alpes over the French Toussaint holidays until November 1. The country’s other resorts are scheduled to open for the season in late November and early December.

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