Planning ahead essential this ski season amid COVID-19

·6 min read

With a fresh layer of snow on the ground, many in the community are anxiously awaiting the start of the 2020 ski season.

“Skiing, like other activities, such as snowshoeing and hiking, can be a safe way for individuals and families to exercise during the winter months,” said Dr. Ian Arra, the medical officer of health for the Grey Bruce Health Unit (GBHU). “Cross-country and alpine skiing are enjoyed at many locations across Grey and Bruce.”

One of the largest draws for winter adventure in the area is, of course, Blue Mountain Resort. However, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, operations at the resort will look a little different this year.

“This season, we will be prioritizing pass holder access to the mountain and limiting day-lift tickets. Guests cannot arrive at the resort and purchase a day-lift ticket – all tickets must be purchased online and the number of available day-lift tickets has been significantly reduced,” said Tara Lovell, manager of public relations for Blue Mountain Resort.

She adds that the number of available day-lift tickets will be based on available terrain, skier-visit data and available indoor space at the resort’s three base lodges.

“The most important thing for visitors to know is that this year more than any other, the need to plan ahead. Research current public health guidelines, go online to plan and pre-book their experiences before arriving at the resort,” Lovell added.

According to Arra, the GBHU has actively been working with area ski clubs and resorts to assist in modifying operations in order to reduce the likelihood of close contact between people.

“The biggest risk is likely to be through close contact with other individuals, especially if people are not wearing facial coverings. Any activity where there are crowds of people, especially closer than two metres, is a concern,” Arra said.

In relation to the ski hill, GBHU has released the following ski-specific guidelines:

For individuals, the health unit recommends:

“When guests arrive at Blue, we encourage skiers and riders to come to the hill prepared to ski,” Lovell said. “Masks are required. In accordance with our local public health guidelines, masks or face coverings will be required without exception in the lift line and on the lifts.”

But what about crossing county or health unit lines for a day on the slopes?

For instance, the Town of Collingwood sits in the County of Simcoe under the umbrella of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU), which is currently in the Public Health Classification Level of stage three or zone orange.

Yet, on the edge of Collingwood’s town limits sits the Blue Mountain Resort, which resides in Grey County and the GBHU, which is currently in stage two or the yellow zone.

“The GBHU would advise people to keep up to date with current government requirements and guidelines. Currently, the province of Ontario is advising people in high-risk areas to not travel to areas of lower risk,” said Arra.

Current provincial advice states travel from high-risk areas is to be restricted and should be for "essential purposes only."

Dr. Charles Gardner, medical officer of health for the SMDHU, recently voiced his concerns around allowing visitors into the area from other high-risk regions.

“The province’s official advice is that residents from grey and red areas not travel. ... Recreational skiing, while a pleasure … is not essential,” he said, adding that he would go as far as “recommending” businesses adopt a policy to only serve customers from orange zones or lower.

Gardner also recently issued a letter to all the municipalities in the region, which strongly recommended they prohibit access to their recreational facilities by anyone residing in a red or grey zone.

He also recommends residents in Simcoe-Muskoka not travel to regions that are under yellow or green restrictions except for essential purposes such as work, school, or medical appointments.

For now, according to Lovell, Blue Mountain Resort does not have any travel restrictions in place for those travelling from high-risk areas.

“At this time, we have not put formal travel restrictions in place. We do strongly encourage all visitors to review and abide by their own local public health guidelines and any guests planning to visit Blue Mountain must review and be prepared to adhere to our Personal Responsibility Code,” Lovell said.

For the ski resorts operating in Simcoe-Muskoka, the SMDHU released a letter to area resorts at the end of October outlining the public health requirements for the coming season.

According to the SMDHU, ski and snow resorts are permitted to open in stage three but are subject to various operating requirements, such as:

“Daily screening applies to members of the public, staff and volunteers who only attend outdoor settings at ski and snow resort facilities even if they do not go inside a resort building,” noted Gardner in the letter to area ski resorts.

In addition, earlier today Garnder released an updated letter of instruction for businesses and organizations located in the County of Simcoe, District of Muskoka, City of Barrie, and the City of Orillia.

The new letter provides further detail around the expectations of screening of employees; physical distancing and ramifications for close contacts of an employee diagnosed with COVID-19.

For the ski industry, the largest takeaways in the directive will be the requirement to:

* Appoint a compliance officer responsible for the implementation of a COVID-19 safety plan

* Utilize physical barriers (such as plexiglass) where reasonably possible, in particular in environments where physical distancing cannot take place. Note that a face shield is not considered an adequate face covering - a face mask must also be worn

* Ensure accurate and updated contact information for all employees

* Minimize instances of more than one individual per vehicle for driving associated with work.

The additional requirements will come into effect on Dec.5.

Kelly Sinclair, part-owner and operator of Highlands Nordic, a cross-country ski facility located in the Niagara Escarpment just outside of Duntroon in the SMDHU district, says operations at her resort have also been adapted for COVID-19 safety protocols.

“As a cross-country ski resort we operate a little differently than a downhill resort. The obvious part is that we don't have a chairlift, which is the biggest restriction for downhill skiing,” Sinclair said.

In regards to limiting traffic from other high-risk areas in the province, Sinclair says the resort does not have a policy in place currently but will follow the guidelines provided by Simcoe-Muskoka and Clearview Township.

“We have needed to hire some additional staff to accommodate the demand for cross-country skiing and to ensure our facility stays clean and welcoming. We are a hardworking team who are ready to adapt and take on any tasks,” she said.

Sinclair notes that anyone looking to visit Highlands Nordic should come with knowledge of the current public health recommendations and as ski-ready as possible.

“We are encouraging skiers to come ready to ski, limit their time inside as much as possible and embrace winter!” she said.

As the ski season and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to progress, both the SMDHU and GBHU encourage the public to stay informed of the current public health recommendations and possible changes to the Public Health Classification Levels.

“Follow public health advice, be respectful of club or resort instructions, wear a mask, watch your distance, wash your hands and be kind,” added Arra.

— With files from Erika Engel

Jennifer Golletz, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca