(Corrects pronoun in last paragraph to make clear Zermatt's mayor is a woman, not a man)
* Swiss 'middle way' allows skiing, requires masks on lifts
* Neighbours such as Austria have closed lifts, for now
* Nevertheless, many foreign guests stay home
By Denis Balibouse
ZERMATT, Switzerland, Nov 21 (Reuters) - Blue skies over the Matterhorn drew skiers and snowboarders to Zermatt on Saturday, as well as police to break up crowds, as Switzerland's modest coronavirus restrictions allowed near-normal operations while other Alpine resorts keep their lifts shut.
France, Italy, Austria and Germany have all ordered even the high-altitude lifts that could be running this early in the winter to remain closed for now in the hope that all resorts can benefit at peak-season, if and when the infection rate slows.
Switzerland, despite being a second-wave coronavirus hotspot with 5,000 infections a day and mounting deaths, is hoping that a middle way of social distancing, limits on gatherings and mask-wearing on lifts can prop up pillars of the economy such as tourism without fuelling the pandemic.
"If it's open, I'll definitely ski," said Swede Max Ahlstedt, on the glacier where Zermatt offers year-round skiing. "You just have to ... accept wearing a mask."
Over the border in Cervinia, on the Italian side of the glacier, the lifts have been closed indefinitely since Oct. 25.
Some Swiss resorts, including Davos to the northwest, boast of "cold-fogging" equipment to blast the interiors of gondolas and "kill 99.9% of viruses, bacteria and spores in a minute".
The Swiss tourism association has even adopted "Clean & Safe" as its motto in the hope of easing tourists' nerves.
And there is no denying the sense of release from confinement that a day on the slopes can bring.
"It'd be worse if you couldn't go to the mountains at all," said Anne Spiegler, a German living in Zurich.
Swiss skier Jean-Francois Paschoud said that it "makes you forget the mask measures".
Swiss resorts know that the number of guests from Britain, the Netherlands, Germany or Scandinavia will inevitably be far below the levels of a normal season as the wait for a vaccine stunts cross-border travel.
Other countries will be glad to start their winter tourist season at all.
In Austria, the Kitzsteinhorn glacier near Zell am See and the Hintertux glacier near Mayrhofen both hope to reopen on Dec. 6, the moment that a national lockdown ends - and to banish memories of an outbreak among visitors last February in the Tyrolean resort of Ischgl that spread coronavirus across Europe.
Zermatt Mayor Romy Biner-Hauser still thinks the future looks bright: "People need vacation," she says. "People need mountains." (Writing by John Miller, reporting by Denis Balibouse in Zermatt and Cecile Mantovani in Geneva; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
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