British Columbia

'Everyone is going home': Coronavirus pandemic leaves workers scrambling in B.C. ski hotspot

In Whistler, March usually brings with it spring break visitors chasing the last days of snow, but this year, the village’s streets, shops and restaurants are practically empty.

'We are also telling visitors not to come to Whistler,' mayor says

Ski instructor Sebastian Vansoest of the Netherlands is one of many expat workers in Whistler facing tough choices as the coronavirus pandemic continues. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

For the numerous expats and foreign workers that keep Whistler and its ski hills running, it's time to go home.

Dutch ski instructor Sebastian van Soest says that means staying right here.

"I can go home [to the Netherlands] but it doesn't really make sense," Vansoest said, carrying his skis past a chair lift near Longhorns Pub — normally one of the busiest patios in the village but now deserted. 

"Back home everything is shut down as well. So why not stay here with what feels like, for me, home?"

Ski hill operator Vail Resorts announced Whistler Blackcomb would be closed for the season earlier in March. Whistler is heavily dependent on tourism, and looking at especially hard times with potential visitors being told to stay home and with Canada having closed its borders to most international travelers. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Around the world, the coronavirus pandemic has people living away from home facing tough choices about what to do next.

It also has tourist destinations staring down a potential economic nightmare as visitors stay home.

In Whistler, those two factors are coming together and have left officials and workers uncertain.

'We are also telling visitors not to come to Whistler'

In Whistler, March usually brings throngs of spring break visitors, but this year, with B.C. officials urging people to stay home and Canada having closed its borders to most international travellers, the village's streets, shops and restaurants are practically empty.

Cashier Brandon Eymann says few businesses are still open in the Whistler village. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

"Being the only ones open, everyone just kind of flocks between here and the grocery store and I think the cigar shop," said Brandon Eymann, a cashier at the Whislife souvenir store, one of the few businesses still operating.

"It's been busy with people getting souvenirs," he said. "Everyone is going home, leaving early."

Whistler Mayor Jack Crompton said he's working with businesses to help them get through this challenge and be ready for when normalcy returns but for now, health and safety needs come first.

"The prime minister has said many times recently that everyone needs to stay home and we all need to follow that direction," Crompton said in a statement. 

"We are also telling visitors not to come to Whistler."

For Australian chairlift operator Luke Van Zaanen, it's so long, not goodbye. He plans to come back to 'Whistralia' once the pandemic is over. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

Planning to leave, planning to return

Australian chairlift operator Luke Van Zaanen had planned to finish working the ski season and then to drive across Canada to the Maritimes. Now, he's just trying to find a flight to his home country.

Once he's finished his 14 days of self-isolation in his hometown of Perth, he'll find a job, save up, and then come back to Whistler — or as he and the numerous other Aussies call it, "Whistralia."

"As soon as Australia opens their borders and we're all cleared to come back and forth, 100 per cent," Van Zaanen said.

Olivia Kuzmich, from Ontario, had planned on spending a gap year in Whistler working as a ski instructor and hitting the slopes as much as she could.

But those plans are out the window now and she and her co-workers have spent recent days on more mundane activities.

"We watch movies," Kuzmich said. "We hang out. We pack up."

Olivia Kuzmich said that while Whistler is practically a ghost town these days, it's encouraging to see people taking recommendations about staying home and avoiding crowded places seriously. (Jesse Johnston/CBC)

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at impact@cbc.ca.  

With files from Jesse Johnston

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