Dan Skelton was optimistic about this year’s ski season. The president of Blue Mountain Resort near Collingwood, Ont., had spent weeks in the fall preparing to open the slopes. The resort limited capacity on lifts, removed seating from lodges, set up heated outdoor areas, invested in touchless transaction systems, and hired about 1,200 seasonal workers. “We were really confident in our protocols, and confident we could deliver,” Mr. Skelton said.
Blue Mountain opened for skiing on Dec. 18. Seven days later, it shut down along with every other ski and snowboard slope in the province when Premier Doug Ford implemented a sweeping lockdown order. “We were very surprised,” Mr. Skelton said.
The province is the only one in Canada to close ski and snowboard hills this season. The Ontario Snow Resorts Association (OSRA) says it’s the only jurisdiction in North America to do so, in fact. Hills are open in British Columbia, Alberta and in Quebec’s red zones, areas that are subject to the maximum level of restrictions. That has enticed many Ontario skiers to hit the slopes in Quebec.
Meanwhile, hard-hit operators in Ontario are baffled by the province’s decision, especially after purchasing personal protective equipment and making other investments to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. If the lockdown is extended past January and ski hills are not permitted to open, some resorts will be forced to close for good, according to OSRA president Kevin Nichol. The province is home to 50 alpine ski resorts, which have lost $81-million and shed 9,000 jobs this year.
The industry is still at a loss for why the province prohibited skiing, an outdoor sport that allows for distancing. While government officials have expressed concern about people travelling to ski slopes, that explanation doesn’t suffice, Mr. Nichol said. “It’s clearly an unfair position that the Ford government has taken,” he said. “Snowmobiling, ice skating and tobogganing, the last time I checked, you have to travel to do any of those things.”
Mr. Nichol is hoping for more clarity from the government on its criteria for determining whether to extend the province’s 28-day lockdown in Southern Ontario, which is set to expire in late January. That would give the industry some idea of whether slopes can reopen. Operators need to invest time and money to ramp up again, such as by rehiring staff and making snow. “If we’re told the day before we can’t open, that’s going to be the kiss of death for a lot of resorts,” he said. The association is also hoping the government will ease chair lift capacity restrictions, which in some cases limit a four-seat lift to a single passenger, leading to longer lineups.
A spokesperson for Lisa MacLeod, the Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, did not answer a specific question about the transmission risk associated with skiing, but instead provided a general statement. “All the measures being undertaken by the government are designed to limit the risk of transmission, reduce mobility between different regions of the province for non-essential activities, and position Ontario to reopen with an improved and more stable health system and public health system,” said press secretary Dakota Brasier via e-mail.
The holiday season accounts for about one-third of Blue Mountain Resort’s business. “A bare bones operation is still going,” Mr. Skelton said. The hotel onsite has few occupants, restaurants are offering takeout, and some retailers are providing curbside pickup. The resort hopes to open its skating loop and offer snowshoeing soon, too.
Robert Huter, the general manager at the family-owned Mount St. Louis Moonstone ski hill north of Barrie, was forced to lay off about 500 workers on Christmas Eve after being open for only 14 days. “We would have loved to have had some insight,” Mr. Huter said of the province’s decision. “We wouldn’t have spent all this time and effort for preparation.”
With hills closed in Ontario, skiers are visiting nearby slopes in Quebec, even though the province is strongly advising against non-essential travel. Some have gone to Camp Fortune in Chelsea, Que., which is about a half-hour drive from Ottawa. “I feel sorry for our brethren in the ski industry in Ontario,” said co-owner Peter Sudermann, “but it’s hard to get away from the fact that our market is predominantly Ottawa.”
Still, business is not exactly booming. Ski lifts are subject to capacity constraints, and Camp Fortune is limiting the number of customers it admits in part to avoid huge lineups. About 1,200 people visited over the course of one day this month, compared with 3,100 on the same day last year. Mr. Sudermann is expecting revenue to be cut nearly in half.
A number of safety protocols are in place at Quebec ski resorts. Visitors are told to come ready to ski and use their vehicles as a home base. The après-ski scene is non-existent, as lodges are open only for washroom access and for visitors to briefly warm up while masked. Face coverings are also required on lifts and while waiting in line. Skiers who live together can share a lift, otherwise a four-seat chair is limited to two occupants. Likewise, gondolas that normally seat eight passengers are restricted to just two.
The public has largely complied with the new protocols, according Yves Juneau, CEO of the Quebec Ski Area Association, but there have been exceptions. Night skiing in Quebec tends to attract a younger crowd that is less concerned with following the rules, such as a group that recently entered a lodge to drink alcohol. Those who break the rules could have their season passes revoked. “When people are not respectful, it’s zero tolerance,” Mr. Juneau said.
Ski communities have been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks. About 111 cases have been tied to the Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna, B.C., according to Interior Health, the local authority. The cases are linked to group housing in which some employees live, social events and gatherings. The resort said earlier this month it fired an unspecified number of employees for not following health protocols.
Dr. Silvina Mema, Medical Health Officer at Interior Health, said in a release last week the risk is low for those visiting Big White. “It is safe to enjoy the outdoors, and we ask that everyone follows all public health orders by staying to your local hill, skiing with your household bubble and following all safety protocols ski hills have in place,” she said.
Meanwhile at Blue Mountain Resort, Mr. Skelton is preparing to reopen on Jan. 23 when the provincial lockdown expires. “We may be able to salvage some of the season,” he said.
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