John Konig is already looking forward to another winter of skiing at Whistler Blackcomb. What he’s not as excited about is the possibility of sharing an enclosed gondola with a fellow guest who doesn’t share his COVID-19 vaccination status.
The Whistler local recently launched a change.org petition imploring Whistler Blackcomb (WB) and its parent company Vail Resorts to require that guests be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to access the mountains.
Vail Resorts on Sept. 20 released its company-wide operations plan for the 2021/22 winter season, outlining a slate of health and safety protocols that include requiring proof of immunization for anyone 12 or older to access on-mountain dining facilities, and mandatory vaccines for all WB staff. In accordance with B.C.’s current provincial health order, skiers and riders will have to wear face coverings indoors and while riding gondolas, which WB confirmed will be loaded at normal capacity this winter.
What guests won’t need to do is show a BC Vaccine Card before boarding a gondola or chairlift.
Konig’s petition, created late last month, is addressed to Vail Resorts chairman and CEO Rob Katz, Whistler Blackcomb COO Geoff Buchheister, B.C. minister of health Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. It had earned upwards of 4,500 signatures as of Wednesday morning.
“Our goal is not to try to prevent people from skiing but to encourage everyone to get the vaccine so we can all enjoy skiing and riding more safely,” Konig said.
In addition to concerns about public safety now that the Delta variant has taken hold—particularly for seniors, those who are immune-compromised and children who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated—Konig also raised the issue of avoiding yet another mid-season shutdown and questioned the logistics of having WB staff checking IDs at multiple mountaintop lodge entrances.
“I’m all for a vaccine mandate to access the mountain, because to me that’s a simple policy,” he said. “It’s easy to administer at point-of-sale, and for season passholders, you know they’re registered as vaccinated, so you eliminate on-mountain checking for restaurants.”
If WB isn’t willing to change course, “there’s going to be people showing up and saying, ‘Look, I’m not [riding a gondola] with a group, I’m going up with only my own party,’” Konig predicted. “I think there’s going to be that kind of response which also could cause confrontations on a powder morning.”
Asked for comment in response to the petition, a spokesperson for Whistler Blackcomb replied via an emailed statement. “The safety of our guests, employees and community is always our top priority. We are in touch with our provincial and local government officials, and will continue to monitor and follow all local and provincial public health orders as the pandemic evolves,” it read.
'People are looking for absolutes, and unfortunately the pandemic doesn’t care about absolutes'
A statement from B.C.’s Ministry of Health also confirmed that the BC Vaccine Card is not required to access gondolas at this time, adding, “It is important in many settings, including enclosed areas such as gondolas, to continue wearing masks to protect ourselves and those around us from COVID-19.”
Henry expanded on her reasoning for this decision during a media briefing on Friday, Oct. 1. “If you want to go to a bar or a pub or a restaurant or the restaurant on the hill then you need to have your vaccine card—I would encourage all the resorts to look at all of those settings where it might be prudent to ensure that only vaccinated people are there,” she said.
“The risk is less when you’re outside; we know that, in smaller groups and when you’re wearing masks and goggles, etc. For a short period of time in a gondola, the risk is probably not the same as if you’re sitting down inside without a mask on having a drink with a group of people.”
But Konig countered, “Dr. Bonnie Henry is probably not a skier.”
A gondola trip from the village to Whistler’s Roundhouse takes about 25 minutes, he explained, with that trip often taking even longer in windy or stormy conditions. “We’re not talking about a couple of minutes in a gondola, we’re talking about a long time,” Konig said.
“Our provincial health authority must be overburdened and stressed out, and I don’t think they have the time to examine the safety of every situation. I think they don’t understand this one, for sure.”
WB’s winter plan is in line with policies currently employed by other B.C. lift operators like the Sea to Sky Gondola and Grouse Mountain, though some other resorts like Kicking Horse and Revelstoke say they are waiting to determine exactly how vaccine cards will fit into their winter operations. The Sea to Sky Gondola does, however, require visitors to ride only with their own groups.
While Banff Sunshine Village will similarly require all staff to be vaccinated, the resort will also ask guests to submit either proof of vaccination, proof of a privately paid negative rapid test result taken within 72 hours, or proof of valid medical exemption in accordance with Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program for businesses.
Canada West Ski Areas Association president and CEO Christopher Nicolson said all of B.C. and Western Canada’s resort operators are implementing health and safety protocols that meet, or in some cases go “above and beyond” provincial guidelines.
Nicolson said no gondolas in B.C. are currently requiring vaccine verification to his knowledge, and underscored that the ski industry is continuing to work closely with public health officials when developing protocols. “Our guidance comes from the health authorities and the health authorities are following the science,” he said.
With that in mind, it was just six weeks ago that B.C. announced plans for a vaccine card initiative for some non-essential services, while seven weeks now remain until WB’s opening day. Before lifts start spinning, the situation remains fluid, said Nicolson.
“People are looking for absolutes, and unfortunately the pandemic doesn’t care about absolutes, and it’s quickly evolving so the [ski] industry is responding very quickly to that,” he said.
“There’s a lot of effort that is being put in on a daily basis. I know people are looking for quick and speedy answers for what will be in two months, and that’s just not possible right now as industry and health authorities work through all the protocols.”
As of Tuesday, Oct. 5, a total of 88.3 per cent of eligible British Columbians 12 and older have received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 81.7 per cent have received two doses. Proof of vaccination is also required for any travellers entering Canada.
Though vaccinated individuals are capable of catching and spreading the virus, studies from the U.S. Center for Disease Control indicate that for vaccinated people, the risk is about one in 5,000 for breakthrough infections. In areas with a low transmission rate, it’s about one in 10,000 and they are 25 times less likely to experience hospitalization or death.