On Tuesday, March 30, Whistler Blackcomb, the largest ski resort in North America, closed for the season eight weeks ahead of schedule. The decision was made after the British Columbia government ordered the resort to shut down until April 19 to quell the spread of COVID-19. Originally, Whistler Mountain was scheduled to close April 18, and Blackcomb Peak was slated to stay open until May 24. Neither will reopen this season.
At a press conference on March 29, provincial health minister Dr. Bonnie Henry cited a surge in cases in the Whistler community and the need to curb travel-related spread. New cases of COVID-19 in the Howe Sound area, where Whistler is located, rose from a total of 32 during the first week of March to 247 during the last week of the month. The worrisome Brazil P.1 variant, first discovered in January, is also on the rise throughout British Columbia. The Globe and Mail reported that it is the largest known spread of the variant outside Brazil.
P.1 is more contagious, can cause more severe symptoms, and, according to the BC Centre for Disease Control, may be able to reinfect people who’ve already had the virus. It also may not be as responsive to current treatments and vaccines as milder coronavirus strains. New cases of the variant identified in other regions of Canada have been linked back to travelers spending time in the Whistler area. The surge has since sparked other restrictions, including a three-week ban on indoor dining and drinking, indoor group fitness classes, and indoor worship services.
Whistler Blackcomb was the only ski resort ordered to close, but its decision to immediately end the season caused a domino effect. The next day, Revelstoke Mountain Resort posted on Instagram that it was ceasing operations for the remainder of the season due to COVID-19. Big White Ski Resort also announced that its season would end early, on April 5 instead of April 11. Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the province reported 1,013 new cases of the virus, its highest-ever single-day total.
The scenario is a replay of last March, when ski-resort towns like Sun Valley, Idaho, became early COVID-19 hot spots. On March 10, 2020, after the World Health Organization officially declared the pandemic, ski areas everywhere began shutting down early. Whistler Blackcomb’s parent company, Vail Resorts, closed all of its North American properties prematurely last season, on March 15.
The 2020–21 season was meant to be different, with stringent policies in place for social distancing and sanitation, and restrictions on the number of people who could attend group ski lessons. Whistler Blackcomb was one of many large resorts (including Aspen Snowmass and Breckenridge in Colorado and Park City in Utah) to implement a reservation system to manage mountain capacity. Skiers at Whistler Blackcomb were required to purchase lift tickets ahead of time online. Even season pass holders had to reserve ski days in advance. Masks were mandatory, regardless of a person’s vaccination status or the rules in their home state.
The changes seemed to be working. In some instances, ski resorts were even praised for not contributing to an increase in COVID-19. In January, for example, public-health officials in eight tourism-dependent communities of Colorado’s high country confirmed that they had not linked any outbreaks to ski areas.
“While the Provincial Health Order caught us all by surprise, we fully support the government’s direction and we’re doing our part to comply,” said Geoff Buchheister, vice president and chief operating officer of Whistler Blackcomb, in a statement issued after business hours on Tuesday. “At this time, we believe the best thing we can do to support the order is to begin winding down winter operations. Our full attention will now turn to getting our resort ready to safely open for summer.” Summertime operations include downhill mountain biking, hiking, and skiing on Horstman Glacier.
Technically, Canadians aren’t supposed to be traveling outside of their communities, let alone provinces, to ski this year. But it’s a government recommendation, not a mandate, and it’s not enforced. “It’s a little bit confusing, from a provincial public-health standpoint,” says Robin Richardson, a Whistler Blackcomb season pass holder who drives 50 minutes from his home in Squamish to ski. “There’s no nonessential travel, but a major tourist hub is open.”
And there’s no doubt that tourists are there. “It’s busier than a lot of people expected,” says Mike Douglas, a professional skier and filmmaker who’s lived in Whistler for more than 30 years. “It feels like there have been people from everywhere here, but especially from eastern Canada.”
Still, locals were caught off guard by the province’s order. Whistler mayor Jack Crompton told Canada’s Global News that the community was in a state of shock. “No one was expecting it, because of how well Whistler Blackcomb was managing the mountain,” says Whistler resident and skier Hélène Castonguay, a retired nurse who was skiing Whistler Blackcomb on its final day in operation. “There’s always going to be some person not wearing a mask, but it was 99 percent safe.”
Whistler already managed a spike in COVID-19 cases, in January. Officials attributed the numbers at that time to holiday travel and celebration. So for spring break in March, the province tried to be proactive, putting Whistler on a priority list for vaccinations. “They did a three-day vaccination blitz in town and vaccinated a ton of people in the community,” says Douglas. “Everyone was really jazzed for spring.” But the measures weren’t enough.
Some locals have taken to the internet to express frustration, but the majority of the online responses have been supportive, thanking the resort for the four months they were able to operate.
Others are processing the situation with wry humor, like the Instagram account @Whistler_Memes. The order to close the resort was delivered on a perfect bluebird day, and the account posted an image of actor Michael Cera smiling brightly, with the words: “It’s a great day…” Below, another photo of Cera looking off camera, suddenly despondent, continued the phrasing: “to be sad.”