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Whistler’s COVID-19 problem is a housing problem

The first in Pique’s series looking at the human impact of the resort’s recent Omicron surge
Between Dec. 1 and Jan. 7, the Whistler Community Services Society made more than 150 food-bank deliveries to locals.

Much has been made over the past two years of the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has brought Whistler’s long-simmering issues bubbling up to the surface. 

It has forced overdue conversations about our community’s mental health and well-being, exacerbated a years-long labour crisis, renewed focus on overtourism and Whistler’s exploding visitor numbers, and pushed local leaders to think hard about the resort’s long-term future as a global destination in the face of climate change. 

But if the pandemic has exposed the cracks in the façade of one longstanding issue above all else, you could make a solid argument for it being housing

“Again, we find ourselves in a place where people working frontline [jobs] and [living] in high-density, congregate housing, or the underhoused, are the first to be impacted by this,” said Jackie Dickinson, executive director of the Whistler Community Services Society (WCSS). “This period, in a way, has repeated itself, so what is it continuing to teach us about what we have to do and think differently?” 

In the first of Pique’s series looking at the human impact of Whistler’s recent Omicron surge, we spoke to locals who have had to self-isolate in crammed living spaces, navigate shifting personal dynamics among housemates with conflicting views on the virus, and heard about the spike in demand for a WCSS program that helps locals isolate safely. 

Coming down with COVID in an 18-person house 

We all know the pandemic is stressful enough on its own, but for 22-year-old ski instructor Lara Varty, COVID-19 has come with the added worry of sharing a living space with 17 other people. 

Varty rents a room with her partner out of a chalet in Alpine for $800 a month, and although she was never infected, in the span of about a week this January, 11 of her housemates tested positive for the virus. 

“People are doing this because of their socioeconomic status. I would not be living here if I had other options,” she said. 

Needless to say, with a dozen-and-a-half people spread out in seven rooms—with as many as four to a room—all sharing four bathrooms and one communal kitchen, it has made self-isolating incredibly difficult. (An eighth room in the house is occupied part-time by the landlords, but Varty said it sits empty much of the time. The landlords declined to comment on the record when reached.) 

“We’ve been hit with the COVID wave pretty hard, and it is impossible to self-isolate, take care, or stop the spread of COVID in our house,” Varty noted. 

Local Natalie Amanda faced similar frustrations after she came down with the coronavirus on Dec. 29, confining her to her room over New Year’s in a 12-person house. 

“I was stuck in my room for five days trying to follow the rules, but it’s just so difficult,” she said. “It’s definitely not easy, especially sharing a kitchen ... You don’t want everyone else to get sick.” 

Like a lot of frontline staff already struggling to make ends meet, the 29-year-old spa worker had to decide between going back to work immediately after her mandatory quarantine, or taking a few extra days off until she felt fully recuperated. Ultimately, Amanda chose the former, a decision she said was influenced by the fact she couldn’t take advantage of all five annual paid sick days that B.C. began to offer as of Jan. 1 because she hasn’t been at her job for the full 90-day eligibility period. 

“I think everyone should be entitled to that sick pay,” said the U.K. native. “Like myself, it’s making me go back to work earlier than I probably should, and I don’t really think that’s fair when it’s something that’s not your fault.” 

Relationship rifts 

We’ve heard plenty about the pandemic’s effect on Whistlerites’ physical and mental health, but less has been made of the rifts COVID-19 can open up in personal relationships. Given the nature of the resort’s housing landscape, many young frontline workers are often forced, out of economic necessity, to share cramped quarters with complete strangers. That can make conversations about the virus and related health protocols all the more difficult, which Varty experienced first-hand as COVID ripped through the house. 

“We had discussions about what the protocols would be, what bathrooms people would be using, wearing masks in the common areas and whatnot,” Varty explained.  “That was pretty much followed by everyone until we got to 10 or 11 cases, and then people just gave up, which was really frustrating. People stopped wearing masks in the house and started using the regular bathroom they’d been using before.” 

Compounding the issue, in Varty’s mind, is what she sees as some of her housemates’ unwillingness to get tested despite displaying signs of illness. (Pique attempted to verify this with other housemates, but none were willing to speak.) 

“It’s very frustrating hearing them coughing and seeing them being sick and then asking them if they are and getting back, ‘Oh yeah, a little bit but it’s cause I was up late last night,’” she said. 

At this point, Varty said the house is divided into two camps: those willing to follow the proper health protocols, and those carrying on as usual.  

“I know they understand the guidelines for being sick and going to work and maybe it doesn’t click that this goes beyond themselves, beyond just them as a person and us as a household. There are others in this town and others who take this seriously and are missing out on work,” she said. “I feel like I have quite an empathetic outlook on this and I follow the guidelines because I know they work … so it’s really frustrating to see them go on as usual and have honestly no consequences to that as well.” 

Cramped living quarters not a rite of passage 

We all know by now that living in one of the most beautiful communities in the world comes with certain trade-offs. But if the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that the old ways of thinking don’t really apply anymore—and that includes the Whistler rite of passage of living in a crowded flophouse. 

“I think we’ve made ourselves believe that those types of living experiences are essential to the beginnings of adventure and what Whistler has to offer,” Dickinson said. “That idea projection that that’s just how you enter the community and get to experience Whistler, the world is telling us that’s just not an option [anymore].” 

That much is evident just by looking at the volume of residents seeking refuge through WCSS’ Temporary Self-Isolation Unit Program, a partnership with BC Housing, Vancouver Coastal Health and local accommodations to provide community members a safe place to isolate. In the past year, the program has provided 410 nights of accommodation, with the majority coming between January and March 2021 before another spike at the end of the year and into the first weeks of 2022. 

WCSS has also seen the impacts of COVID-19 in the demand for its food bank, with 103 deliveries made in December alone, and about three-quarters of those in the last 10 days of the month. The organization made another 50 deliveries between Jan. 3 and 7. 

“That’s a really interesting stat to look at how quickly this virus hits that very economically and socially vulnerable population,” Dickinson said. 

‘Every one of these individuals belongs to a family’ 

Dickinson still remembers the place she lived in as a university student that was without heat in the frigid winter months and, at a certain point, was hit with an infestation of “biting ants that started coming out of the vents.” 

After raising the conditions with her landlord, she was met with inaction. That is, until her father took the matter into his own hands and paid a visit to the landlord’s home. After noticing the landlord had children of their own, Dickinson’s dad turned it back around. 

“He pointed to me and said, ‘Well, this is my child. I’m asking you to consider the decision you’ve made in how you’ve housed her. She’s down there without any heat and just space heaters. She belongs to me. She’s my kid,’” she recalled. 

Within two days, the heat was installed. It speaks to a personal touch that Dickinson believes has been lost in Whistler’s current housing climate. 

“I think that for a lot of these people who have come across the country, a lot of their families or family systems don’t have the ability to do that. I’m wondering if we could start thinking that way, just like my dad did,” she said. “Every one of these individuals belongs to a family, and when they are in your housing care, they’re looking to you to keep them safe. I think we’ve lost the personal connection.” 

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