COVID-19 spike has Whistlerites split on how to keep economy running and community safe

As COVID-19 cases surge in Whistler, B.C., and health officials urge against non-essential travel, residents are torn between keeping the ski town’s economy running and protecting locals. 

The community has so far tried to balance both, with Whistler Blackcomb open to skiers by reservation only and bars and restaurants open at reduced capacity.

But now the town is being clobbered by an outbreak with almost 300 cases this month alone, most connected to young people who live and socialize together, according to health officials.

Some residents say it’s having a big impact on the workforce and that it’s time to close down to out-of-town visitors to get a handle on community transmission.

“I got sick and then I took seven other people out of work,” said Philip Johnson, who works at a hotel in town.

“Almost 300 cases in Whistler, that’s over 2,000 [close contacts] out of work now all for two weeks. Whistler can’t keep doing that.

“To me, coming from Vancouver to Whistler to ski isn’t essential travel.”

Johnson says he’s had a rough four days of headaches, sleepless nights and loss of taste and smell since he tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the risk of COVID-19 transmission is not on the ski hill, but in the gatherings that may take place before and after.

She has previously said people in B.C. should stick to their local ski hills, but on Friday said day trips were better than multi-day vacations. 

“I would say day trips are less risky, with your family, your household,” she said.

“If you’re somebody who works, or has strong connections and lives partly in Whistler, then yes, that is your local ski hill.”

Whistler Blackcomb is open to skiers by reservation only and bars and restaurants are open at reduced capacity. (Whistler Blackcomb)

Who’s a local?

Some Whistler residents say that room for interpretation is necessary for a town that relies on tourism.

“It’s a recommendation. It’s not a law,” said Stacy Kohut, a Paralympic skier and retail employee in Whistler.

Kohut believes businesses in the community are doing a good job of following health and safety protocols to reduce transmission. He doesn’t think people who have supported the community for years — but who don’t live there — should be banned from visiting this year. 

He says the problem isn’t from parties, but instead stems from the town’s housing situation for many seasonal workers. 

“It’s the 19 kids stuck in the five bedroom house, that’s the problem,” he said.

“We’ve got greedy landlords up here and we have people that are sticking way too many people into houses.”

Stella Harvey, founder of the Whistler Writers Festival, agrees. 

She said she appreciated a recent meeting with Whistler’s mayor and council about the COVID situation and wants to see more meetings like that to keep residents informed. 

Having more information about where cases are originating and how they’re spreading would help the community know how to respond, Harvey said. 

“At the moment, I don’t know how much travel is a problem,” Harvey said. 

Earlier this week, when asked about out-of-towners travelling to the resort community, Mayor Jack Crompton said his message has been clear for some time: people should stay home.

“In my view, we don’t have an economy without getting to the other side of this pandemic,” he said.

With COVID-19 exposure notifications at six restaurants in one week, Eric Griffith says trying to determine how to keep a business alive while keeping staff and patrons safe is the “big question right now.”

The president of the Restaurant Association of Whistler and owner of Alta Bistro says restaurants have been following tight protocols and he believes they are still safe places to visit.

Still, his restaurant was recently closed for five days after staff tested positive for COVID-19.

“It’s really hard to pin down exactly where things start, where they end,” he said. 

“Almost everyone now knows someone [with COVID-19] and a month ago, that wasn’t the case.”

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