SAN VIGILIO DI MAREBBE, Italy (AP) — After nearly two years of being restricted to watching snow accumulate on distant mountains, Italian skiers are finally returning to the slopes that have been off-limits since the first pandemic lockdown in March 2020.
But just as the industry is poised to start its recovery from the lost season and the abrupt closure the previous year, a spike in cases in the Alpine province bordering Austria is underlining just how precarious the situation remains.
As if on cue, snow fell overnight into Saturday, blanketing the slopes of Plan de Corones in the South Tyrolean town of San Vigilio di Marebbe, giving a fresh covering to the man-made base just in time for opening day Saturday. Skiers came from as far away as Croatia and the Italian capital, Rome, as well as from neighboring valleys where slopes have yet to open.
“I have shivers up and down my spine, because we left the slopes on the famous March 8 of 2020, rushing to Rome because everything was going into lockdown,” said Monica Meloni, 53, from Rome, as snow continued to fall. “We did the last run on this slope, looking at each other and asking ourselves, 'When can we get back?' It took nearly two years."
Her companion, Massimo Vela, said he was optimistic that the season would continue unabated.
“We hope it goes well not just for us tourists, but for all the workers in the Alpine region. This is a very important industry,'' he said.
To ensure the safety of skiers, the Dolomoti Superski network of 16 ski resorts, with 1,200 kilometers (nearly 750 miles) of runs in the Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto regions, including Plan de Corones, have launched a special ski pass. It is integrated with the nation's health pass and is aimed at ensuring access to closed lifts only to those who are vaccinated, recently recovered from COVID-19 or have a recent negative test.
The health pass data must be verified in order to purchase a ski pass, a system that was approved by Italy’s privacy regulator, and which spares lift operators from having to check health passes each time skiers board lifts.
Skiers also are required to wear protective masks on lifts, both open chair lifts and closed gondolas, as well as a maintain a social distance of one meter (three feet) in lines — something that the length of the skis will help guarantee.
But it is masks off for the descent.
While Italy remained closed all last season to recreational skiers along with neighboring France, lifts in Austria were open to residents, and Switzerland welcomed skiers from anywhere. This year, France and Switzerland are enforcing mask mandates and social distancing, while Austria is limiting skiing to those who are vaccinated or recovered and Germany's Bavaria region is requiring that even vaccinated skiers show a negative test.
Italy's South Tyrol, bordering Austria, has the lowest rate of vaccinations in the country, and the government of the German-speaking autonomous province has imposed fresh restrictions in 20 towns in a bid to allow skiing and other holiday activities to resume normally.
They include the world-class Gardena Valley ski towns of Santa Caterina and Ortisei. Both are set to open Dec. 4, but it is not clear if that date can be kept.
“They need to absolutely get out of the red zone,’’ said Valeria Ghezzi, president of the ANEF ski lift association.
Operators said they are also waiting for word of how Italy’s new super Green Pass will be applied.
Over the holiday season, the government is restricting access to most indoor leisure activities — from museums to dining, theaters to cinemas — to those who are vaccinated or who have recovered from the virus in the past six months. While skiing has yet to be specifically addressed, Ghezzi said she believes the same restrictions will apply to mountains with closed lifts, which account for the vast majority of Italy’s ski resorts. Only a handful of ski areas in the Alpine foothills operate with only open lifts.
Ghezzi said it is important for everyone to follow the rules to ensure that the season can continue without bumps.
“The mood is very positive,’’ Ghezzi said. “There is still a little worry. It would be superficial not to be worried,” she said, citing soaring rates of contagion in neighboring Austria and nearby Germany, as well as Slovakia and Slovenia.
Barry reported from Milan.