By Steve Hubrecht

The Columbia Valley’s ski resort are readying for their opening days even as a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic looms over B.C., and even as provincial officials announced restrictions that, if extended beyond their deadline in a few days time, could impact the winter tourism season here in the Columbia Valley.

As cases spiked in B.C. in November, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made a provincial health order outlining new restrictions, and provincial officials simultaneously announced a travel advisory asking people not to travel in or out of B.C., or indeed outside their local health region, for anything but essential reasons. The advisory specifically targeted mountains sports and asked people to ski at their local ski hills, rather than travelling for mountains sports. The advisory, as well as the restrictions contained in the provincial order, were set only until Dec. 7, which is before Panorama Mountain Resort and Fairmont Hot Springs Resort (FHSR) ski hill’s opening days. But even before the travel advisory, both resorts had long since been implementing measure and protocols in preparation for the pandemic ski season.

“From a business perspective, we want to make sure we are conducting our business in the safest manner possible,” FHSR chief executive officer Vivek Sharma told the Pioneer, outlining that FHSR has put numerous measures and protocols in place at both the resort and the ski hill. “As a business, we are doing everything we can.”

For instance, the measures include required face coverings in all indoor public areas, and relieving ‘crushed’ space in the ski hill’s day lodge and chalet by spreading out tables, opening up extra seating in different locations and setting up a warming tent outside. The ski hill’s triple chairlift will only be loading people from the same group, and there will be extensive signage reminding people to keep their social distance.

“Tip to tip, with skis, you already almost have two metres,” said Sharma. “But we want to make sure people are not congregating side to side.”

FHSR currently has two time slots open for the public to visit the hot pools, and FHSR ski hill season pass holders will be able to use the hot pools during those time slots. However, daily lift tickets will not include access to the hot pools as they normally do, said Sharma, because the hot pools simply don’t have the capacity to accommodate that many people while maintaining social distance protocols.

Sharma said that obviously, FHSR is hoping the travel advisory restrictions will not be extended, as although the ski hill is quite popular with local skiers and riders, the resort needs visiting skiers. “We have a pretty strong local base of skiers, but we all know the traditional tourism industry can’t be supported just by locals. It’s just not possible,” he said.

In a worst-case scenario, if the orders and travel advisory are extended for weeks or even months, FHSR probably would not shut down its ski hill, said Sharma, because “season pass holders have already bought into the program.”

Sharma pointed out that, in the current COVID-19 situation, skiing is one of the safest winter activities, given how naturally distant skiers and riders are from each other on the hill, and how many skiers already wear face coverings. He concurred that it might even be possible that people who usually pursue other winter activities might turn to skiing this winter instead, since these activities do not lend themselves as well to socially distancing. “There may also be quite a lot of people not able to go south for vacations this year, and they may re-engage with the Canadian winter experience,” said Sharma.

Panorama Mountain Resort declined to comment specifically on the potential effect of the travel advisory, noting that the restrictions are set to expire before the opening day and saying it would be premature to comment on what is in place right now.

“The health and safety of our community is our highest priority, and we are following all B.C. orders and guidelines. As we continue to prepare the resort for our planned opening on Dec. 11, the team is working on contingencies for all possible scenarios,” said Panorama president and chief executive officer Steve Paccagnan in a statement. “Since the spring, our people have worked incredibly hard to create an environment, both on the mountain and in the resort village, where everyone can feel safe and really enjoy their time outside. We tested our safety protocols this summer with real success, and we’ve worked closely with resorts and industry bodies, here and in the Southern Hemisphere, to adapt our winter operation to meet the unique challenges of the winter ahead… We know it won’t always be easy, but we are lucky to live in this beautiful place. I am really thankful for the amazing team here and the supportive community around us.”

Among the measures, Panorama is taking are mandatory face masks in all public indoor areas and mandatory face coverings (masks, neck warmers, balaclavas or buffs) in specific outdoor space (including chairlifts), and reducing capacity at virtually all resort venues to allow for greater physical distancing and to cap seating at no more than six people per table (including in the Great Hall as well as in the hill’s mountain huts: Summit Hut, the Mile One Hut and the Elkhorn Cabin). Panorama’s lift corrals will be organized differently to help ensure physical distancing. On busy days skiers and riders will be able to load chairs with others who are not part of their bubble, in order to keep skiers and riders moving, keeping in mind that face coverings are mandatory. If skiers are not comfortable with this, they should speak to a lift attendant, and the resort will arrange more distance on the chair. The resort is also purchasing a hexadome to cover the Great Hall patio to provide additional sheltered seating.