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Whistler effectively closed for business as COVID-19 spreads

B.C. declares public health emergency; bars and clubs ordered closed
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Ghost town Whistler Village was eerily quiet on Tuesday, March 17, one day after nearly every business in town closed its doors. Photo by Braden Dupuis

Whistler is reeling after an unprecedented week of upheaval and change brought about by the ever-spreading novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

And with confirmed cases steadily rising—including 83 new and 286 total in B.C., as of Pique's weekly deadline on March 17—local officials are preparing for the long haul.

"When this started, I had a real sense that endurance was going to be crucial to our success," said Mayor Jack Crompton.

"I asked council to consider the fact that this was going to be very much a marathon and that we want to keep capacity to serve for a long time. I have put a lot of my focus on staying healthy and maintaining a clear mind, which I hope marks the way our organization and our council deal with this over the long term."

How much can change in a week?

Everything, it turns out.

After Pique went to press on Wednesday, March 11, the National Basketball Association announced it would suspend its season due to the threat of COVID-19. The National Hockey League followed suit the next day.

The following days were marked by event cancellations worldwide and rumours of local cases running rampant, and on Saturday, March 14, Vail Resorts announced it would close all of its North American resorts, Whistler Blackcomb included, due to the virus.

In a phone call the night of the announcement, Crompton called the closure "devastating."

The next morning, on Sunday, March 15, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) activated its emergency operations centre to help coordinate a response to the ongoing crisis.

Behind the scenes, RMOW officials were following the developments every step of the way, said chief administrative officer Mike Furey.

Cleaning procedures at municipal facilities were ramped up on Friday, March 14 while on Saturday the focus was on communicating info from public health authorities to frontline staff, he said.

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that Canadians should stay at home as much as possible on March 16, all non-essential municipal buildings and programs were closed.

Essential services including bylaw, RCMP and fire crews, as well as roads, water and sewer staff remain at work.

"We want to keep the community operational," Furey said. "We are now building back up beyond our essential services to other services that we can start reintroducing through work-from-home arrangements and remote working."

Meanwhile, the RMOW is also looking for other ways to "assist the community through this difficult time," Furey said, whether that be support for the Whistler Community Services Society or helping connect businesses with federal and provincial relief programs.

While some have criticized the RMOW on social media for not acting sooner, officials were following the advice of the experts, Furey said.

"The municipality has no authority or expertise to make public-health decision closures, and that's why from the beginning of where we find ourselves now, we have been following health authorities, both federal and provincial, as we move forward," he said.

ON THE MOUNTAIN

With Whistler Blackcomb's closure, all scheduled employees are being paid through March 22 without needing to use vacation or sick time, said a Vail Resorts spokesperson in an email, while lodging employees will be paid through March 24.

"To ensure that our seasonal employees continue to have access to medical care during this transition, we will extend health benefits coverage through April at no cost to employees who are currently enrolled," the email said.

"We understand that seasonal employees may have financial or other hardships during this transition, and our Epic Promise Employee Foundation will review those situations to help provide support."

Further, all full-time, year-round salaried employees will continue to be actively employed and paid with benefits, regardless of the hours they work and without using vacation or sick time.

In the meantime, WB announced on March 18 that it will allow uphill skiing on designated routes. Go to whistlerblackcomb.com to find out more.

CLOSED FOR BUSINESS

In a town built on global tourism and hosting massive, world-class events, the new pandemic reality of closed borders and social distancing protocols is nothing short of a disaster.

In a press release on March 16, the Tourism Industry Association of BC (TIABC) called on senior governments to establish a fund to help tourism operators across the province deal with the ongoing crisis.

"These are unprecedented times," said Tourism Whistler president and CEO and TIABC board member Barrett Fisher.

"It is exceptionally challenging for our entire community, but it goes without saying that it's exceptionally challenging for our province, our country, [and] the world. We truly do believe that safety and personal health and well-being must come first, and so our priority is to support our community, and our guests, to get through this."

Short-term marketing efforts have been suspended, and Tourism Whistler's marketing team is now considering what the resort's recovery will look like on the other side of the pandemic.

"Our goal is to look at, what are some of the potential opportunities moving forward if the situation is contained and hopefully resolved?" Fisher said.

But the immediate problems come first.

"Because this isn't a Whistler-specific problem, this is a global problem, I think first and foremost, we have to be in this together as far as the ultimate global community," Fisher said.

"We have to support each other when we're dealing with this kind of a health challenge ... I think everybody recognizes that these are very challenging times, but that, if we all do the right things, we'll come out of this on the other side in a positive way."

On March 16, the Summit Lodge Whistler was the first local hotel to close its doors due to the crisis, but discussions were still ongoing amongst other operators the following day, said Saad Hasan, chair of the Hotel Association of Whistler.

"All hotels are certainly looking at various options and going back to ownership boards," Hasan said.

"If there are closures that will come, they will come more through the corporations, because big brands will look at their own processes and they will decide whether they want to continue or they want to shut down."

Asked about potential layoffs (and subsequent compensation) for Whistler's 2,800 hotel workers, Hasan said that, too, would be decided on a case-by-case basis by the hotels.

Given the current situation, is anyone booking at all right now?

Anecdotally, Hasan said he had heard of some hotels that had received recent bookings, "but then the moment they were asked to self-quarantine or whatever they decided to head back or cancel."

Reached by phone on March 15, Whistler Chamber CEO Melissa Pace said business owners in the resort are "definitely concerned," but it's important that they stay calm.

"Small business is undoubtedly going to be affected, and has already been affected ... It's definitely time to pause and educate ourselves, and reassess the decisions that we make, and most importantly bring calmness and patience to your staff, and for yourself," Pace said.

"What we focus on really does become our reality, and does expand ... we'll get through this, and it's important that we don't make knee-jerk reactions."

The Chamber will be "repositioning" itself as a place where business owners will be able to get all the necessary tools and resources from the government, Pace said.

And while it's still too early to talk about financial relief for business, Pace said the government could ease the pain by putting a pause on taxes like the Employer Health Tax.

"Keeping money in the accounts of the businesses, so that the businesses don't go further into debt—that's what we want to look for," she said.

Pace encouraged Whistler business owners to fill out the BC Chamber's recently released survey related to the impacts of COVID-19 (find it at bcmindreader.com).

CHANGING REALITIES

Day by day, and sometimes hour by hour, the COVID-19 crisis continues to evolve.

On March 17, Premier John Horgan announced the government will fast-track emergency legislation to protect workers impacted by the crisis, and that all B.C. schools are suspended indefinitely.

In a release on March 17, Sea to Sky School District (SD48) superintendent Lisa McCullough said the Ministry of Education and the SD48 team would be "providing a plan for online learning" for students.

The highest priority will be on Grade 12 students, followed by Grades 11 and 10.

"Over time, we will continue to take direction from the Ministry of Education and the Public Medical Health Officer as developments transpire and new information is made available," McCullough wrote.

"Our plans for student learning will extend as we learn more."

Though rumours about confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Whistler have swirled endlessly in recent days, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) has yet to provide specifics.

In a release on March 15, VCH acknowledged that there are "cases of COVID-19 in coastal rural communities," which includes Whistler, Squamish, Pemberton, Sechelt and Powell River.

"To protect patient confidentiality and because the situation is changing on a daily basis, we will not be sharing the number of people in the community who received a positive test result," the release said.

Asked for more details about rumoured cases in Whistler, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said that specific locations of positive cases are not given out due to privacy concerns.

"Anyone who may be at risk of exposure to COVID-19 gets contacted by the public health officials who are supporting confirmed cases and their close contacts," provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in an emailed statement.

"We will not be identifying the specific location of confirmed cases unless public health providers cannot be certain they have reached all those who need to be contacted and who therefore might be a risk to the public.

"We want people who have symptoms to contact us, and to feel safe contacting us, knowing their privacy will be protected so the steps to protect the health and safety for all can be taken. This is why privacy is important to everyone. It allows public health providers to do the work they need to do to keep everybody safe."

The province was already facing a shortage of family doctors before the COVID-19 crisis hit, causing capacity concerns and anxiety in light of the new illness.

But B.C. physicians are now able to bill for phone consultations, which could "alleviate the burden on patients coming to the office," said Dr. Janice Carr at Town Plaza Medical Clinic.

"There are certain things we can deal with by phone, and now doctors will be remunerated for that phone service," Carr said.

That said, it is no doubt a difficult time for healthcare workers across the province.

"The phone lines are extremely busy," Carr said. "It's very hard on the front-line staff. People are very nervous, and recommendations are changing by the day on care and testing."

Find more info here: www.vch.ca/about-us/news/vancouver-coastal-health-statement-on-coronavirus.

Find the latest from the RMOW at whistler.ca/covid19.

Check piquenewsmagazine.com for updates as this story continues to develop.




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