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Whistler stakeholders weigh in on B.C.'s reopening plan

Cautious and careful the name of the game as Whistler prepares for a new normal
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DOWNHILL DELAYED While the Whistler Mountain Bike Park traditionally opens May long weekend, its 2020 opening day—and Whistler's tourism future in general—remains up in the air. Photo by Justa Jeskova/Tourism Whistler

With the provincial government's announcement on May 6 that COVID-19 restrictions will be eased in four phases—beginning in mid-May with elective surgeries, personal care services, provincial parks and more—local stakeholders are trying to picture what Whistler's "new normal" might look like in the coming weeks and months.

"It seems to me like a careful, patient and deliberate plan. It's one that we'll be paying very close attention to and including in all planning moving forward," said Mayor Jack Crompton on May 7.

"Whistler's planning for reopening has been happening for a long time, [but] the B.C. restart plan is a critical piece of new information that will inform that work."

If the transmission rate remains low or declines in Phase 1, Phase 2—from June to September—will see hotels, resorts, overnight camping, movies and symphony (though not large concerts) brought back into the fold, among other things.

More challenging are things like conventions, concerts, and international tourism—all conditional on the development of wide vaccination, "community" immunity or broad, successful treatments.

While the government's plan provides a roadmap, in many cases, specifics remain elusive, and the overall picture of Whistler's place in B.C.'s new normal remains far from clear.

AT MUNICIPAL HALL

As it stands, municipal facilities such as the Meadow Park Sports Centre and Whistler Public Library, both closed on March 16, will not be re-opened until the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) is comfortable it can do so in a safe and controlled manner.

To that end, staff is working with organizations like the BC Recreation and Parks Association on re-opening plans, and looking at WorkSafeBC and The Municipal Insurance Association of B.C. guidelines related to COVID-19 and physical distancing to see how they relate to all public spaces and buildings.

Municipal hall itself will reopen on a smaller scale in the coming weeks with physical-distancing measures in place to allow for transit pass purchases and tax payments (though most municipal services are available online, and the RMOW suggests the public use that route first).

While council meetings have been held virtually since April 7, work is also underway to allow for virtual public hearings.

The Economic Partnership Initiative (EPI) committee continues to meet, with its next (closed) session scheduled for Thursday, May 14.

"It is anticipated that the EPI will be able to communicate relevant information in the coming days and weeks for the benefit of both residents and the business community," a spokesperson said.

The RMOW is also working with the business sector to ensure employers have the proper information around WorkSafeBC guidelines.

While local parks will stay closed for the long weekend, a phased reopening is planned for the coming weeks.

"Parking lots will remain closed to encourage people to continue to recreate locally and playgrounds will remain closed as they are high-touch surfaces," the spokesperson said.

"We are looking at adding concession services in preparation for the summer season, as we are able."

ON THE MOUNTAIN

Traditionally, the May long weekend marks the official opening of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park—an opening now predictably delayed.

"We don't have a specific date in mind, but we are looking at—as those restrictions start to ease, where resorts start to open sometime in June—what that operating plan would look like," said Vail Resorts' West Coast director of communications Marc Riddell.

The complexities of opening the bike park in the current climate (how does social distancing apply to bike park and trail crews, food and beverage offerings, or bikers themselves? What might the impact on the health-care centre be?) mean that Whistler Blackcomb (WB) and Vail Resorts will be taking a "careful and measured" approach to its planning, Riddell said.

"We have to be careful ... we can't just rush back into things because some of those restrictions have been eased. We are looking very closely at how other jurisdictions have responded to the easing of restrictions," he said, adding that any approach WB takes will follow the guidelines set out by health officials.

"As we get closer to finalizing an opening day we will walk people through [the details]. You can imagine the complexity of it, and so we're taking the time to pick through it, to carefully plan it, to be measured in our approach, and once we're closer to formalizing that we're going to let folks know."

Collaboration will be key in Whistler's recovery, and WB has been in constant contact with other resort stakeholders, Riddell added.

"The only way we're going to get through this is if we all come together as the resort that we are, and are able to deliver something that may not look like it has in the past, but that is forward looking and hopeful for the future," he said.

THE TOURISM OUTLOOK

At Tourism Whistler (TW), regular meetings are taking place with the commercial and accommodation sectors to discuss forecasts, potential recovery plans and what's happening in other places around the world as restrictions ease, said president and CEO Barrett Fisher.

"So we certainly have been well underway in planning for what does recovery look like," she said.

One important piece of work that will prove relevant to Phase 1 is a database of all Whistler businesses showing whether they're open or not.

"We're expanding upon that database to now include when businesses are planning to open up ... and then what are the new safety protocols that are being put into place around social distancing, sanitation and other things," Fisher said.

"Certainly having these appropriate COVID-19 protocols in place is important to our guests, and so we want to ensure that we're sharing that with them through our consumer website."

While the updated database is a work in progress, it will be available at whistler.com, Fisher said.

"We don't know the timing of some sectors and some businesses; we don't anticipate that everything is going to open up at the same time," she said.

"It will be a methodical opening up of different sectors and different business based on the province's direction as well as their readiness."

In terms of its marketing, TW had to strip away those target audiences that it can't currently attract—which, as of this writing, is basically everyone—with the goal of building back up its efforts as more restrictions ease.

"So for example, today, it's 'stay home.' Over the next two weeks it's 'stay in your own community.' As of June, we're anticipating that we'll start to see some B.C. visitors coming through June, July, August and September," Fisher said.

While interprovincial visitors could return in late summer or the fall, further out it gets murkier, with no set date for the return of international travel.

Conference business, too, will likely be nonexistent for the foreseeable future, and several groups that booked for 2020 have rescheduled to 2021 and beyond.

Meanwhile, a $3.5-million renovation of the Whistler Conference Centre—an aesthetic overhaul that includes new lighting, carpets, wall coverings, furniture, art and more—was briefly delayed due to COVID-19 before resuming with proper protocols.

"We're looking to complete the renovation probably by June of this year, is the hope, and then it will be an amazing, beautiful, upgraded facility to welcome groups back when the time is right," Fisher said.

While time will tell when tourism will truly return to Whistler, "when we do start to see visitors coming back to our community it's important that we show our hearts and we welcome them back," she added.

"I think that all of our guests will be prepared to continue to support social distancing and doing the right thing, and we will continue to communicate the importance of that, but we are a tourist-based economy, and so in order to get our businesses and our economy back up and running again, we hope that we can start to bring back visitors and that they will be welcomed in a positive way."

HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS

Like all other stakeholders in the resort, members of the Hotel Association of Whistler (HAW) are eyeing a cautious approach to reopening.

"Whatever steps we take in terms of a reopening, it has to be very careful, it has to be measured, it has to be step-by-step, it has to ensure that we are keeping physical distancing, we are keeping the hygiene protocols, all that in place, and protective equipment," said HAW president Saad Hasan.

"So those are things that we will have to very carefully manage, because of course no one wants to have a situation where we are providing unnecessary exposure either to our guests or to staff."

While all hotels will follow the requirements set out by health officials, additional measures and precautions will likely be added by different brands, Hasan said.

"The orders that have been put out I think are very good, because at least they set a certain benchmark, a certain standard, and then we can build upon that," he said.

About 30 per cent of Whistler's hotels have remained open throughout the restrictions, but "as far as guest business is concerned, I don't think they saw much of that," Hasan said, adding that summer bookings "are not looking promising in any way, shape or form at the moment."

The severity of the pandemic took hotel operators by surprise in February, forcing them back to the drawing board on forecasts and budgets, Hasan said.

While many HAW members have short-term contingencies to fall back on, "we have not had discussions on what it would be like if we were to run this scenario through all the way into the end of summer, or certainly going into winter," he said.

If the summer trends positively, with infections staying low while business returns, "I think people will be able to somehow survive," he added. "If that doesn't happen, if this thing just takes a slow, lingering toll, and summer starts looking like it's down the tube, then I think it will be a different discussion altogether.

"Then it will be quite worrisome, I think."

As for the Restaurant Association of Whistler (RAW), an online member feedback session was scheduled for Wednesday, May 13 as Pique went to press.

In the meantime, RAW is working with all stakeholders to safely and efficiently prep for reopening, and assessing the crucial points that need to be addressed for restaurateurs to do so successfully, said chair Eric Griffith, in an email.

"The province will guide final decisions on actual timelines, and we are patient and optimistic," he said.

"Currently, our hospitality community has a wide range of takeaway food options and restaurant in-home services offered that we urge our community to support during this time period before we welcome everyone back into our businesses."

While Whistler's recovery will be a slow, potentially painful process, Crompton has faith in the locals who made the resort what it was to begin with.

"There's lots of thought that needs to go into understanding what a physically distanced but hospitable experience looks like," he said. "I am incredibly confident in Whistler and Whistlerites. If anybody can do it, we are the ones."



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