On Tuesday, March 30, Whistler Blackcomb, the the largest ski resort in North America, closed during the season eight weeks ahead of schedule. The decision was made after the British Columbia government ordered the complex closed until April 19 to quell the spread of COVID-19. Originally, Whistler Mountain was scheduled to close on April 18, and Blackcomb Peak was due to remain open until May 24. Neither will reopen this season.
In a press conference on March 29, Provincial Health Minister Dr. Bonnie Henry cited an increase in cases in the Whistler community and the need to curb the travel-related spread. New COVID-19 cases in the Howe Sound area, where Whistler is located, increased from a total of 32 during the first week of March to 247 during the last week of the month. The worrying Brazil P.1 variant, first discovered in January, is also on the rise across British Columbia. The Globe and mail reported to be the largest known spread of the variant outside of Brazil.
P.1 is more contagious, can cause more severe symptoms, and, according to the BC Center for Disease Control, can re-infect people who have already had the virus. It may also not respond as much to current treatments and vaccines as milder coronavirus strains. New cases of the variant identified in other regions of Canada have been linked to travelers spending time in the Whistler area. Since then, the increase has prompted other restrictions, including a three-week ban on indoor eating and drinking, indoor group fitness classes and indoor worship services.
Whistler Blackcomb was the only ski resort ordered to close, but its decision to immediately end the season had a ripple effect. The next day, Revelstoke Mountain Resort posted on Instagram that it would be shutting down for the remainder of the season due to COVID-19. Big White Ski Resort also announced that its season would end early, on April 5 instead of April 11. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the province reported 1,013 new cases of the virus, its highest total in a single day.
The setting is a replay of last March, when ski resort towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, became the first COVID-19 hot spots. On March 10, 2020, after the World Health Organization officially declared the pandemic, ski areas everywhere began to close early. Whistler Blackcomb’s parent company, Vail Resorts, prematurely closed all of its North American properties last season, on March 15.
The 2020-21 season was meant to be different, with strict social distancing and sanitation policies, and restrictions on the number of people who could attend group ski lessons. Whistler Blackcomb was one of many large resorts (including Aspen Snowmass and Breckenridge in Colorado and Park City in Utah) that implemented a reserve system to manage the capacity of the mountains. Whistler Blackcomb skiers were required to purchase chairlift tickets in advance online. Even season pass holders had to book ski days in advance. Masks were mandatory, regardless of a person’s vaccination status or the rules of their home state.
The changes seemed to be working. In some cases, ski resorts were even praised for no contributing to an increase in COVID-19. In January, for example, public health officials in eight Colorado highland tourism-dependent communities confirmed that they had not linked any outbreak to ski areas.
“While the Provincial Health Order caught us all by surprise, we fully support the government’s direction and are doing our part to deliver,” said Geoff Buchheister, Whistler Blackcomb vice president and chief operating officer, in an after-hours statement. commercial. on Tuesday. “At this time, we believe the best we can do to support the order is to begin closing winter operations. Now all of our focus will be on preparing our community to open safely during the summer. ”Summer operations include downhill mountain biking, hiking and skiing on the Horstman Glacier.
Technically, Canadians are not supposed to travel outside of their communities, much less the provinces, to ski this year. But it is a government recommendation, not a mandate, and it is not enforced. “It’s a bit confusing, from a provincial public health standpoint,” says Robin Richardson, a Whistler Blackcomb season pass holder who drives 50 minutes from his home in Squamish to ski. “There is no non-essential travel, but a major tourist center is open.”
And there is no doubt that there are tourists. “He’s busier than many people expected,” says Mike Douglas, a professional skier and filmmaker who has lived in Whistler for more than 30 years. “It seems like there have been people from all over here, but especially from eastern Canada.”
Still, the locals were caught off guard by order of the province. Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton told Canada Global News that the community was in shock. “Nobody expected it, because of how well Whistler Blackcomb was handling the mountain,” says Whistler resident and skier Hélène Castonguay, a retired nurse who was skiing in Whistler Blackcomb on her last day of operation. “There will always be someone who doesn’t wear a mask, but it was 99 percent safe.”
Whistler already achieved an increase in COVID-19 cases, in January. Officials attributed the figures at the time to travel and holiday celebrations. So for spring break in March, the province tried to be proactive, putting Whistler on a priority list for vaccines. “They did a three-day vaccination blitz in the city and vaccinated a ton of people in the community,” says Douglas. “Everybody was really excited for spring.” But the measures were not enough.
Some locals have turned to the internet to express frustration, but most of the responses online have been supportive, thanking the complex for the four months they were able to operate.
Others are processing the situation with ironic humor, such as the Instagram account @Whistler_Memes. The order to close the complex was delivered on a perfect day, and the account posted a picture of actor Michael Cera smiling happily, with the words, “It’s a great day …” Below, another photo of Cera looking off camera. : suddenly dejected, continued the phrase: “to be sad”.
Main photo: stockstudioX / Getty