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A snowboarder glides under the Powder Chair at Big White ski resort near Kelowna, B.C. in this file photo from Jan. 30, 2008.JACQUES BOISSINOT/The Canadian Press

Nearly 180 cases of COVID-19 have been tied to staff at three ski resorts in Western Canada as the industry works to stay afloat under tight health restrictions that have constrained their operations. The outbreaks have been blamed, in part, on crowded accommodations among staff.

The restrictions, which include strict isolation and testing measures at resorts that have had outbreaks, as well as provincewide restrictions including bans on social gatherings, have put a damper on the party atmosphere that has usually been the norm among mostly young resort workers.

But ski resorts in Alberta and British Columbia have remained open. Last month, ski hills in Ontario were forced to close for the holiday season when the province brought in a new lockdown order, taking ski operators by surprise. Ontario is the only province in Canada to close ski facilities – in fact, the Ontario Snow Resorts Association (OSRA) says Ontario is the only jurisdiction in North America to do so. Hills are open next door in Quebec, even in areas subject to the maximum level of health restrictions.

In the past two months, coronavirus outbreaks and clusters have been declared at Alberta’s Lake Louise Ski Resort and Nakiska Ski Area, and Big White Ski Resort near Kelowna in the Southern Interior of B.C., according to the resorts and health officials in both provinces. All of those cases are believed to have started in staff housing – either on the resorts themselves or in private residences where those workers live – often in crowded shared accommodations.

Michael Ballingall, senior vice-president of Big White, said two COVID-19 infections last month were among staff in the company’s own accommodation units, but he said the majority of the initial cases occurred among staff in private accommodations not managed by Big White.

Interior Health reported on Jan. 8 that the cluster has grown to 143 cases.

Mr. Ballingall said by early December, more than 700 people employed by Big White Ski Resort lived on the Big White Mountain, staying in all types of accommodation – from bachelor suites and private apartments to shared condominiums and large chalets. He said that among these employees, more than 250 live in the company’s own staff housing, which are either single rooms or double rooms for couples. He said the company made that adjustment after the pandemic hit.

While the Interior Health team took the lead on managing positive cases and offering information and advice, Mr. Ballingall said his company helped by dealing with transportation, accommodation and food. Staff were asked to get tested and the health authority sent a team to do tests onsite for five days.

“It proved to be very efficient [for] us, literally putting a fence around the cluster,” Mr. Ballingall said.

In November, six cases were identified over four different staff accommodations at Lake Louise Ski Resort. Resort spokesman Dan Markham said pro-active testing was the most effective way to contain the transmission. Positive cases related to the outbreak eventually grew to 19.

Markham said about 85 to 90 per cent of resort staff were tested after the outbreak was declared, in part to try to catch all asymptomatic cases. “I think it was one of the biggest things that helped us get ahead of things,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Markham said overcrowded staff accommodations are not an issue at his resort. In the past, he said, almost half of their staff were international students from Australia, New Zealand and other countries. But since the pandemic shut down international borders, most Lake Louise resort staff this season are university students who are choosing not to go back to school, as well as seniors who aren’t travelling – as such, most of them are staying at their own homes in the area.

Staff housing was also the site of a COVID-19 outbreak in early December at the Nakiska Ski Area, said Matt Mosteller, spokesman for Resorts of the Canadian Rockies. That outbreak included 15 cases.

Both Mr. Markham and Mr. Mosteller said ski resorts are seeing tremendous interest in skiing and snowboarding this winter. Mr. Markham said even though his resort lost many international customers during the pandemic, the interest from nearby regional markets, such as Calgary, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Red Deer, is rising.

But for Big White, the third-largest resort in B.C., business has been “significantly down” compared with before the pandemic. Usually at this time of the year, Mr. Ballingall said, the resort would normally be at more than 90-per-cent occupancy thanks to customers from Ontario and B.C., as well as the United States, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. This year, he said, the occupancy rate is down to about 20 to 30 per cent.

“Devastating. Mostly day traffic only,” he said.