Blue Mountain resort president Dan Skelton on the postponement of ski season

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“It just doesn’t make sense”: Blue Mountain resort president Dan Skelton on the postponement of ski season

Blue Mountain president Dan Skelton was all set for a snowy and Covid-safe ski season when the province shuttered resorts on Boxing Day. Last week’s stay-at-home orders were more bad news for anyone hoping to get on the slopes any time soon. Queen’s Park’s rules are different from those in other provinces: in Quebec, for instance, they have lockdown measures—including a curfew—but ski resorts are still running. And some Ontarians are pretty heated about the decision.

Here, Skelton tells Toronto Life about how Blue Mountain planned for a safe ski season, what it’s like to hand out pink slips for Christmas, and why—a least for now—the best way to ensure any kind of ski season is to stay home.

You opened for the season on December 19. Two days later, the province postponed ski season. Was that something you were anticipating?
We were not. Mostly because every indication going into the winter was that we would be permitted to open. The restrictions got tighter as numbers went up, but there was no suggestion that skiing would be shut down, even in the event of a lockdown. So we went into the season fully confident that even if we had to adapt our operations, we would be able to operate. And we did a lot of work in advance to prepare.

What kind of work?
We overhauled our indoor space, removing half the seats and implementing a reservation system to spread out the load and for contact tracing. We invested in outdoor heated spaces, touchless transactions, a text-messaging system for guest services, washroom occupancy sensors. We reconfigured our rental space. And we would be amenable to doing more if that meant we could open up—even just to locals.

None of this sounds cheap.
No. We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars as well as months of planning and labour. We recruited and trained 1,200 seasonal employees and then had to release them on four days’ notice. It was horrible. Merry Christmas—you’re laid off. And many of those employees are ineligible for EI because they’re students or seasonal workers.

That is just horrible. Of course, the province defended their decision by saying their goal is to stop the spread of Covid-19 and to ultimately prevent death. Don’t they have a point?
We fully support the objectives of the lockdown and the new stay-at-home orders. We need to get the numbers down. But I would also say that outdoor recreation is one of those necessary and valued activities that is consistent with public health objectives. We ran hundreds of thousands of people through our resort over the summer with an adapted operation, and we proved that we could do it safely. So what I don’t understand is why we aren’t being allowed to do that again. At the very least we would like some clarity. Right now people are spending time in conservation areas, they’re snowmobiling, they’re hiking—and all in places that are less regulated than here at the hill. It just doesn’t make sense.

Premier Ford has said that the policy is about avoiding regional travel—Torontonians travelling north, for instance—and to keep hospitals from reaching capacity, which makes a certain amount of sense.
Right. That’s information that we have gotten only recently. It would have been nice to understand that back in December when we were shut down originally. Again, I would say that we are a highly adaptable operation. We can shrink our attendance, we can get rid of indoor space. There are a lot of things we can do if we understand what the concerns are.

Would you consider restricting entry to anyone coming from hot zones like Toronto?
That’s a question we struggled with over the summer. Our feeling, which is also the feeling of our municipality, is to focus on behaviour rather than geography. If you’re getting in your car, what’s the difference between driving for an hour and a half versus going to the grocery store? The key is that you’re being responsible and spending time with only people in your household. I think it’s also important to look at the obligation on the individual versus the obligation on the business. When you buy a pass at Blue Mountain, you just show up at the lift.

Meaning that if people are being advised or told not to travel between regions, the responsibility falls on the individual who is breaking the rule and not the business who is letting them in?
Yes, but I would also say that a lot of our skiers are from Toronto with a second home here. So if they’re sequestered here, what does that make them? Or what if someone from Collingwood has travelled to Toronto? I don’t think it should be incumbent on the business to sort that out.

I’m sure you’ve heard that more than 180 cases have been linked to ski resorts in Western Canada. That doesn’t make me want to hit the slopes.
Yes. We are connected with other resorts and of course we are following everything that’s going on there. I’ve had my ears open for any indication that their protocols are contributing to the spread, and I haven’t heard that. My understanding of that particular resort is that it’s a staff-housing-generated issue, which had us focus on our own staff housing. I can tell you that our protocols are incredibly tight.

Is the goal now to open February 11—the end of the current emergency order in Ontario? Or are you hoping to make a case for opening ski resorts during the lockdown like they’re doing in Quebec?
We recently had a productive conversation with the Ministry of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture. I maintain that we could have adapted our operations to provide outdoor activity—even just for locals. But I’m very reluctant to pass judgment on anyone who is leading the effort against Covid-19. There is a lot to navigate.

Ford has said that getting people back on the ski hills is “the last thing” on his mind.
And I understand that. He’s got a lot to deal with, and I wouldn’t expect him to want to talk about ski resorts in the context of the numbers he is looking at. I just hope that we’re top of mind for someone in his government. We’re a pretty good, healthy industry.

Worst-case scenario: ski resorts in Ontario don’t open this season. Is Blue Mountain okay?
I think so. We’re lucky because we’re part of a large international corporation, so we have that security. That’s not the case for some of these smaller, family-owned resorts, and I’m really worried about them. We need a network of resorts in Ontario to maintain our strong market.

Almost 90,000 people have signed a petition to reopen Ontario ski resorts. Does that surprise you?
Not at all. Our guests, skiers and snowboarders are a very passionate group. Right now we’re having to tell people who are driving to the top of the hill and skiing down that they’re not allowed to do that because we’re closed.

Are those people facing any punishment?
No. We’re just having our security tell them they aren’t allowed to be doing that. I don’t support anyone breaking the rules, but I am sympathetic. I’m looking out my window right now—the resort is my backyard. It’s a sunny day, the trails are covered in fresh snow. Like everyone else, I’m very keen to get on the slopes. That said, I want to be very clear that for the time being we want everyone in our community to stay at home, set an example. If we come out the other end of this and the numbers haven’t improved, that’s going to be a big failure. The best thing you can do to support your ski resort right now is to stay home.