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WATCH: Dix, Henry weigh in on vaccine proof for gondolas following call with Whistler mayor

It’s ‘important for the employer in that case to respond to the wishes of the community,' says B.C. health minister

Whistler’s Mayor is bringing an ongoing community debate to the province’s attention.

During a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 9, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix told reporters he received a call earlier in the day from Mayor Jack Crompton to discuss whether proof of COVID-19 vaccine should be required to ride a gondola this winter. 

“We spent some time talking about this issue. He’s advocating, obviously, forcefully for his community,” said Dix, “and I think it’s also important for the employer in that case to respond to the wishes of the community as well, and we’re hopeful they’ll do so. I know other ski hills across B.C. have done that.”

Currently, provincial health officials have chosen not to extend the BC Vaccine Card program—which requires people aged 12 and over to show proof they’ve received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine in order to access some non-essential events, services and businesses—to ski lifts. Some ski resort operators have taken matters into their own hands and announced vaccine mandates for guests this winter, including Resorts of the Canadian Rockies, Revelstoke Mountain Resort, and Grouse Mountain.

With Vail Resorts-owned Whistler Blackcomb planning to once again load its lifts at full capacity when opening day rolls around on Nov. 25, the resort’s intent to allow all visitors aboard lifts—regardless of vaccination status—has prompted a litany of passionate responses from skiers and snowboarders on both sides of the debate. Vancouver Coastal Health’s (VCH) public health officials have reviewed and endorsed Whistler Blackcomb’s communicable disease prevention plan for the winter season.

In response to Dix’s comments, a spokesperson for Whistler Blackcomb told Pique in an email that the health and safety of the resort’s guests and employees remains its top priority. 

“We cannot speak for other resorts and their policies. We trust that all businesses are doing their best to weigh changing circumstances and the evolving nature of the pandemic,” the statement read. “We have and continue to work closely with public officials and operate in accordance with all local public health orders. We are requiring vaccinations for guests who wish to dine at all table service restaurants, restaurant patios and bars, as well as quick service restaurants. Whistler Blackcomb was also one of the first in the industry to require all employees to be fully vaccinated.”

The spokesperson pointed guests toward a full list of the resort’s safety protocols posted online

Ski resort operations pose extremely low risk for COVID-19 transmission

Crompton reached out to Dix Tuesday to better understand health officials’ decision-making process around gondolas, "and to help them understand what I'm hearing from community members and Whistler Blackcomb passholders," the Mayor explained.

Asked whether he agrees with Dix’s claims that the Mayor is “advocating very strongly and certainly directly to [B.C. health officials] as well on this question," Crompton said, “The context is that I'm helping him understand our context in Whistler. That is a fundamental role of any mayor around the province. He needs to understand our context and I'm the person to help him do that.”

Crompton said he’s been hearing from “a significant amount of people” who would like to see a vaccine card required at Whistler Blackcomb, while admitting “there’s a lot of different opinions” on the issue.

(As of Tuesday evening, more than 9,600 people had signed an online petition calling on the local resort to implement a vaccine mandate for skiers and riders.)

So, on which side of the ongoing debate does Crompton fall? In lieu of a straight answer, Crompton reiterated his confidence in B.C.’s provincial health officials. “It's pretty easy for me to provide an opinion from the sidelines, but throughout the pandemic, my intention has been to trust in the expertise of public health officials,” he said. 

Additional insight into the province’s decision-making can be found in data shared by Whistler’s Medical Health Officer, showing ski-hill operations posed an extremely low risk for COVID-19 transmission during the 2020-21 season. The health agency reportedly identified 2,036 cases of COVID-19 in Whistler from mid-October 2020 until mid-May 2021, most of which had known sources of transmission, such as between roommates in household settings or among friends at social gatherings.

While 90 per cent of Howe Sound health area residents aged 12 or older are now double-vaccinated, the majority of visitors travelling to Whistler this winter are likely to be vaccinated as well: proof of vaccination is not only necessary to enter Canada from abroad, but is now required to use federally regulated methods of travel like planes and trains. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry echoed much of that reasoning during Tuesday’s press conference.

Asked by a reporter whether British Columbians could expect to see any changes in guidance around whether the vaccine card may be used at ski hills this winter, Henry highlighted the “robust” safety plans and numerous layers of protection that already exist across the industry. 

“We have been working with local public health, so my colleagues in each of the areas where we have ski hills, have been reviewing the safety plans with each individual ski hill, and there’s a couple of things that all of them must adhere to, regardless of where their headquarters are,” she said. “We have an indoor mask mandate, and gondolas are—like public transit, for example—an area where mask wearing is required, absolutely, and that is the same across the board.”