While outdoor activities have been widely reported as safe during the ongoing coronavirus crisis, public health restrictions and stay-at-home orders are taking a toll on Ontario ski venues.
Before the Ontario government announced the closure of ski and snowboard hills as part of a province-wide COVID-19 lockdown Dec. 26, 2020, Mount Pakenham near Ottawa had spent about $800,000 on pre-season expenses, part of which went toward ensuring the hill accommodated the necessary pandemic safety measures.
For instance, the resort pivoted so that nearly all its services could be outside — it installed outdoor ticket windows, added 22 outdoor washrooms and enhanced its outdoor barbecue. It also incorporated a mandatory mask policy in areas where physical distancing could be a challenge, implemented COVID-19 signage and installed plexiglass barriers.
“We asked people to use their vehicle as their base lodge, to really dress appropriate, plan to be outside the entire time, have shorter visits,” Julie Burns, Mount Pakenham’s marketing director, told Global News.
“We changed all of our procedures to try to make it so there was less use of the lodge and just quicker access between their vehicle and the chairlift.”
Mount Pakenham has already lost out on the money it spent leading up to the ski and snowboard season — and was forced to lay off about 250 employees three days before Christmas. The resort is part of a province-wide ski and snowboard industry that has lost about $88 million to $90 million and has shed about 9,000 jobs as of Dec. 30, according to Ontario Snow Resort Association president Kevin Nichol.
“Our 50 member resorts spent upwards of $10 million combined just to incorporate COVID-19 protocols, procedures and personal protective equipment for guests and staff,” Nichol said.
“We were actually taken by surprise at the announcement that during the shutdown that skiing would not be allowed, because prior to that, in grey (lockdown), the most strict of conditions, we were allowed to operate.”
Some upset, don’t understand ski/snowboard hill closures
After the provincial government announced that ski and snowboard hills would be forced to close, one Ontario resident started a petition imploring the government to allow them to operate. The petition has garnered nearly 90,000 signatures so far and argues that skiing should be “the safest sport” when wearing face coverings, maintaining physical distancing and riding chairlifts with people within one’s household only.
“There are other sectors that are allowed to operate, where people will be getting closer together than what we’re offering, and yet we’re not allowed,” Nichol said.
“When you’re at a ski area, you’re in a controlled environment, you have staff that are monitoring and assisting guests all the time. But when you get to go tobogganing or skating at an outdoor rink, you’re on your own.”
Under Ontario’s current lockdown, skating rinks and sledding hills are allowed to remain open, along with basketball courts, playgrounds, skating trails and other outdoor recreational activities.
However, on Tuesday, the Ontario government declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19 and issued a stay-at-home-order, the latter of which will go into effect on Thursday, Jan. 14. The order mandates all Ontarians to stay home, except for essential reasons, and allows all enforcement and provincial offences officers to issue tickets to people who don’t comply.
In an email to Global News Monday, a spokesperson for Ontario’s ministry of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries said all the government’s measures “are designed to limit the risk of (COVID-19) 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.”
The spokesperson didn’t directly answer why ski and snowboard hills were forced to close, while skating rinks and toboggan hills were allowed to remain open. She said Ontario’s minister of heritage, sport, tourism and culture industries met with ski hill stakeholders in late December and committed to establishing a working group with officials and industry experts to facilitate a safe reopening once the lockdown is over.
On Friday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the reopening of ski and snowboard hills was “the last thing” on his mind.
“What I wouldn’t want to see is people in the hot zones — there’s a lot of skiers and snowboarders here — who would travel up there to get away, stay in a hotel, have some meals and so on,” Ford said. “We need to avoid travelling.”
Travel and ski/snowboard hills
Currently, Ontario is the only province in Canada to shut down ski and snowboard hills as a result of COVID-19. In a statement released in late December, the Ontario Snow Resorts Association said the province is now the only jurisdiction in all of North America to close ski and snowboard hills.
“Every other province seems to understand the relationship between the outdoors and mental health by working with their industries that provide safe spaces, like ski hills,” Julie Burns from Mount Pakenham added. “We’re still waiting for our provincial leaders to do the same.”
While Ford has referenced travel concerns when it comes to skiing in Ontario, Burns said residents in the area of Mount Pakenham are able to easily travel to Quebec, where skiing and snowboarding are still permitted. She said there are several hills in the neighbouring province that are within driving distance from Ottawa.
“The Ottawa ski community is one community, and we had a lot of pass holders that were new this year,” Burns said.
“They normally would have skied in Quebec, but they chose to follow the guidelines and stay close to home, and some of those families now have been requesting refunds to spend their money in Quebec instead.”
Eric Desarmia, 39, is a snowboarder who lives in Ottawa. He recently travelled to Sommett Edelweiss, a ski and snowboard area in Quebec, which is about a 45-minute drive from where he lives.
“The only thing that you can do inside is use the bathroom,” he said of the Quebec ski and snowboard area. “There’s usually two or three people up near the chairlift kind of monitoring everything.”
Desarmia said he felt safe while at the hill and that everybody was spaced out well.
How ski/snowboard hills in other jurisdictions are responding to COVID-19
Elsewhere in Canada, ski and snowboard enthusiasts have flocked to the hills, which has sometimes resulted in long lines and traffic gridlock.
In late December, crowds packed British Columbia’s Lower Mainland ski hills, while lengthy chairlift lines have also been reported at Whistler-Blackcomb.
In order to accommodate the COVID-19 safety measures, Mount Seymour Resort near Vancouver has introduced an online reservation system, which lets skiers and snowboarders book four-hour time slots at the hill on weekends and during holidays. This allows Mount Seymour to stagger its visitors throughout the day.
“The vast majority of all our customers — I would say 99.9 per cent — are all within an hour’s drive of our resort,” Simon Whitehead, Mount Seymour’s marketing manager, told Global News.
“We have extra lift operators who are managing the lines, so they’re making sure that people are keeping far enough apart, and they’re also asking people to replace their mask if it accidentally slips off.”
Whitehead said the resort has a mandatory mask policy in place for when people are waiting in line and on the chairlift. Mount Seymour has also committed to selling 50 per cent fewer lift tickets this year to allow for physical distancing and guests are required to pre-purchase their pass or ticket prior to visiting.
“If we hadn’t put a reservation system in, I think we’d probably be busier than we’ve ever been,” Whitehead added.
“People are looking for any outlet to escape to the great outdoors and get away from the city, and so we’re seeing unprecedented demand.”