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Why Big White's early COVID cluster is now 'a blessing in disguise'

FILE. Big White resort.
March 31, 2021 - 6:30 AM

Big White Ski Resort's senior vice president says the extra measures taken and vaccinations at Big White Ski Resort due to a COVID-19 cluster was “probably a blessing in disguise” since Whistler-Blackcomb had to be closed down by order this week.

In December, a COVID-19 cluster was announced at the resort, with transmission mostly being identified between resort workers in close quarters.

Last week, Interior Health announced the cluster was contained with 237 cases of COVID-19 linked to this cluster, 150 of those having resided at or worked at the ski resort. A cluster, defined by the World Health Organization, are COVID-19 cases clustered together by time, geographic location or by community exposure.

READ MORE: COVID-19 cluster at Big White Ski Resort contained

“Dealing with the cluster, we were all over the national news in early December and it looks like we were the poster boy for the ski industry on what not to do with staff,” said Michael Ballingall, senior vice president with Big White Ski Resort, adding the resort fought for the next two and a half months to keep COVID-19 cases low by keeping track of employees, their COVID-19 tests and through contact tracing.

Whistler Blackcomb ski resort is closed until April 19 as COVID-19 cases spread in the community, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced at her regular press conference, March 29.

Big White, meanwhile, had the experience to manage these kinds of issues. Its employees were moved into alternative accommodations and 800 employees and residents on the mountain received an AstraZeneca vaccine, Ballingall said.

“As far as we know there hasn’t been any spread in the workplace at any resort in British Columbia and this bodes well for the protocols that we have in place,” he said.

He said Big White's "protection bubble" was "probably a blessing in disguise."

Whistler is also a popular destination close to a large population, he said. With the deadlier form of COVID-19 variant, the Brazilian P1, found in Whistler, he said it will probably change some behaviors.

This spring break saw an influx in out-of-town visitors and concern remains for the resort for those who might be looking for somewhere to go now that Whistler has closed.

“We know that people have arrived here from outside the area, we know that non-locals are here. We see it in the restaurants when we’re taking reservations or asking for contact tracing information,” Ballingall said.

Big White has banned anyone from outside of the Central Okanagan staying at resort hotels since the cluster was announced in December but that doesn’t stop visitors from using other forms of accommodation, he said.

“At spring break there were people from all across Canada but if there’s someone to blame for that, it’s Airbnb, (VRBO Rentals, Owner Direct Vacation Rentals), the non-traditional booking methods have allowed people to book under the cloak of larger corporations,” he said.

Ballingall said they haven’t seen an increase in call volumes or internet activity since Whistler’s closure. 

“There’s a lot of people there that will obviously looking for something to do… it’s something we’re concerned about, it’s something that everyone should be concerned about because all of a sudden there’s people that have time on their hands and if they have the ability to move, they can,” he said. 

“We need to abide by and play by the rules and quite frankly at Big White we’ve proven that works.”


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