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Skiers urged to follow health rules as bustling ski hills expected for Family Day weekend

Skiers and snowboarders should knock off the après ski parties and follow COVID-19 safety rules if they want their local ski resorts to stay open. That was the message being sent by B.C.
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Skiers at Mount Washington. [Darren Stone, Times Colonist]

Skiers and snowboarders should knock off the après ski parties and follow COVID-19 safety rules if they want their local ski resorts to stay open.

That was the message being sent by B.C.’s ski industry this Family Day long weekend in the hope that an information campaign targeting skiers and resort employees will be enough to tamp down the surge in COVID-19 cases in resort communities.

The education blitz, which includes a website, digital ads and direct contact with resort employees and season’s pass holders, was announced Friday by the Ministry of Tourism, Arts, Culture and Sport, which said it worked with the Canada West Ski Areas Association, WorkSafe B.C. and municipal governments from six resort towns.

However, no government funding is being dedicated to the information campaign, with the ski industry association and individual resorts responsible for getting the message out.

The Opposition Liberal tourism critic, Teresa Wat, said public-health messaging clearly isn’t getting to the small number of rule-breakers which is why stepped-up enforcement might be the only way to get through to them.

On Vancouver Island’s Mount Washington, visitors must wear face coverings from the time they leave their vehicles at the resort.

People should know what to expect and be prepared to comply with policies, the resort said on its website. With distancing, people are advised to stay more than a ski length from others. Anyone not following the protocols will be asked to leave.

Some ski resorts are taking a tougher stance on out-of-province visitors.

Big White Ski Resort, which owns about 500 chalets and vacation rentals, has been cancelling the reservations of anyone who lives outside of a 150-kilometre radius, said Michael J. Ballingall, the resort’s senior vice-president.

That includes anyone from Metro Vancouver as well as would-be travellers from Ontario and Alberta.

That has cost the Okanagan resort more than $7 million in lost bookings since December, shortly after the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, advised against non-essential travel.

A flood of cancellations came on Thursday after Ontario announced that spring break will be postponed until April 12, Ballingall said.

The disappointed — and, in some cases, irate — customers and lost revenue is a small price to pay to keep the community safe, Ballingall said.

“Every resort town, every resort operator is doing the right thing by asking people not to come,” he said. “You have to be able to look the locals in the face and say: ‘We’re doing the best we can to keep you safe.’ ”

Interior Health said Friday there has only been one additional COVID case linked to a community cluster at Big White Mountain which, since December, had infected 236 people, 226 of whom have recovered.

Vancouver Coastal Health said this week that community transmission of the virus is slowing in Whistler, with 43 new cases between Feb. 2 and Feb. 8, plus an additional 24 older cases with earlier symptom onset dates. The resort community had 547 confirmed cases of the virus between Jan. 1 and Feb. 2.

Speaking to reporters this week, Premier John Horgan commended the ski industry for its help in implementing COVID-19 safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. He said the virus is not spreading on the ski hills, but among people gathering after they hit the slopes.

“Skiing is perhaps among the safest things you can do with your mask on and your helmet on, swooshing down the hill, clearing your head, getting physical activity, being emotionally recharged,” Horgan said.

He said people should not plan a vacation at a ski resort, rather head to their closest ski hill, then head home at the end of the day.

“If we can reduce the transmission that’s happening off the hill, I think we’ll be in a much better place as the weeks go by.”

Chris Nicolson, CEO of the Canada West Ski Areas Association, said he is confident the targeted messaging, along with a bit of peer pressure, will convince skiers and resort employees that the ski season could be cut short if the virus continues to spread.

“So there’s a vested interest of everyone within those towns to be the reason we have a season and to abide by those rules,” he said.