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Maxed Out: Warning—opinion ahead!

Max Sept 30 gondola
Vail Resorts' operational plan for the upcoming winter season makes no sense, writes G.D. Maxwell this week.

Funny how many people seem to believe opinion writers—columnists—should be objective in what they write. That’s the job of reporters. I admire their work but it’s not part of my job description.

So what follows is my opinion and it may not be your opinion. In fact, I’m certain I’ll receive emails from readers who inundate me with their fevered rebuttals, their conspiracy theories, their alternate “scientific” facts and their general disdain for my opinions. I consider each and every one of them valued readers. Their vitriol is proof I’ve discharged my duties for another week. Thank you.

With autumn upon us, thoughts turn to the upcoming ski season and whether this one will be foreshortened in the same way and for the same reasons as the past two—rampant COVID-19 infections. The first year, 2020, was understandable; the whole world ground to a halt. Last year was less understandable, a failure of the Provincial Health Officer (PHO) and Vail Resorts to clamp down on visitors to the resort and the resulting wildfire of virus that swept through the town, aided by the housing shortages we share with almost every other resort town.

If this year proves to be a hat trick of early closures, the reasons are likely to be the same. Reading Vail Resorts’ COVID-19 safety protocols for the upcoming season, it is clear they are, once again, waiting for the PHO to drop the hammer rather than taking the steps necessary to avoid another spring without skiing. 

Unlike last season, there will be no more reservation system. Fair enough. It didn’t really do much to keep people away. That duty fell to closed borders. All employees will be required to be vaccinated. This is in keeping with the line many employers have taken and in the case of Whistler Blackcomb makes a lot of sense, given the housing conditions many employees find themselves in.

Face coverings, for both guests and employees, will be required in indoor settings—restaurants, lodging, washrooms, retail and rental. They’ll also be required inside gondolas, which will operate at normal capacity. No more one-person gondolas and absurdly long lineups.

To enter indoor restaurants, restaurant patios and bars, guests will be required to show their BC Vaccine Card if they’re older than 12. You’ll also need to show your vaccine card for the quick service, on-mountain restaurants. Presumably visitors from other provinces will be required to show their version.

So what’s missing? General access to the mountain is open to all, vaccinated and unvaccinated. Vaccination will only be required for mountain access if required by local public health. So unless the PHO decides to require proof of vaccination you may well be sharing a gondola with unvaccinated people, albeit wearing a mask... assuming they keep it on. You may well be sitting next to unvaccinated people on chairlifts with no masking requirement. You may find yourself in a Ski School group with unvaccinated people riding with you and sharing lifts.

This makes no sense. 

Logistically, it means Vail Resorts will have to staff each and every eatery on the mountains at each and every access point with someone who will be checking vaccine passports. Washrooms in restaurants will be accessible with masks only but the control of this will be, well, interesting.

Consider: In Whistler’s Roundhouse/Pika’s, the washrooms are on the ground floor. I can’t speak for the women’s, but there are two entrances/exits for the men’s. One exits to the hallway and then the entryway, the other to Pika’s. At a minimum, there will need to be two people checking vaccine cards, one at the bottom of the stairway to the Roundhouse and one at the entry to Pika’s, both off the main entry area. And this is only if they bar entry to Pika’s from the side door and the Roundhouse from the upstairs patio entrances, all of which are necessary safety exits. Oh, and they’ll have to close the entry/exit to the men’s room at Pika’s. Otherwise, the number of staff needed to check vaccine status at that one location alone balloons to at least five or more.

At Rendezvous, the washrooms are on the ground floor, accessible via the stairs from above and the side door from outside. So they’ll need someone at the main entrance and someone at the bottom of the stairs. Even if they bar access to the restaurant from the restroom level, they’ll need to either let patrons from the restaurant access the washrooms from above and return, which will require staffing the stairs, or forcing restaurant users to walk around the building on the outside.

As above, this makes no sense when they could simply put the requirement to be vaccinated in place before anyone even gets up the mountain. This step would enhance safety for everyone skiing and riding and eating and sightseeing and would, in the case of passholders and edge card holders, only require their status to be entered in the system once to make their passes valid. People purchasing day tickets would need to show their status to purchase the ticket. Problem solved.

The only other way this makes sense is if greed is the only motivating factor keeping Vail Resorts from adopting this solution. But with all international travellers requiring proof of vaccination to enter the country and virtually all provinces now issuing proof of vaccination cards, what exactly is their reason for not requiring it for mountain access and waiting for the PHO to order them to take this step?

And with proof of vaccination required now to enter any full-service restaurant in town, why are local restaurants not adopting a requirement for all staff to be vaccinated? I understand staff is the gold standard this season, but one infected staff member can effectively close a restaurant for a couple of weeks. How does that make sense?

This is going to be a difficult year for Whistler. With the pandemic-deranged, pent-up demand for holidays, we are likely to experience visitor numbers that overtax our short-staffed businesses. We are likely to be unable to provide the guest experience we’d like to stake our reputations on. We will suffer another body blow if we have restaurants closed down entirely for periods of time because COVID-19 has visited them. Our reputation will suffer if we experience another unnecessary early closure. 

And that certainly makes no sense.