Sudbury·Audio

Ontario ski hills happy to 'salvage' the season, but facing 'devastating' financial losses

Ski season has arrived in Ontario, but now hills and resorts are focused on balancing the books while keeping COVID-19 from spreading on their slopes.

At least one hill has said skiers from stay-at-home zones are not welcome

Skiers at Boogie Mountain in Espanola are only allowed to take their masks off when they are coming down the slope. (Erik White/CBC )

Tom Hutchinson stands between the parking lot and the slopes of Boogie Mountain watching masked skiers and snowboarders arrive for one of the first runs of the season.

The small non-profit hill in the small northern Ontario town of Espanola is only open to members this week, while they try out the province`s new COVID-19 procedures.

"You're always worried you forgot something," says Hutchinson, the hill`s general manager.

"We've had plenty of time to overthink it."

Other than wearing a mask, skiers now can't share a lift with someone outside their household, or use the chalet.

Many Ontario skiers hit the slopes during COVID-19 for the first time this week. (Erik White/CBC )

Several customers at the Adanac ski hill in Sudbury were seen eating lunch in the parking lot on a sunny afternoon this week.

Recreation coordinator Kevin Joblin says he didn't think they'd actually open this season. 

"Just to feel the snow under your feet again, in those moments the world feels normal again and we kind of forget about the pandemic," he says.

But Joblin does have to think about COVID-19 a lot, and make sure the regulations are all followed, saying he's more "cautious" than nervous about skiing and snowboarding during a public health emergency. 

Greater Sudbury recreation coordinator Kevin Joblin says they have reached their capacity of 200 visitors at Adanac ski hill in the first two days of the season. (Erik White/CBC )

Jonathan Reid looks up at the slopes of the Horseshoe Resort near Barrie and it looks like a regular day in February.

Although the number of skiers and snowboarders with their faces covered would make you think it's colder than it actually is.

"By nature, ski resorts are in the business of risk management and COVID is just another level of risk to our business," says the general manger of the resort and its 600 employees.

Horseshoe was one of the hills that opened briefly in December before the province-wide lockdown started on Boxing Day.

Reid estimates that they'll lose about half of their season, but says starting now in February it can be "salvaged"

He says he doesn't understand why the Ontario government didn't follow "what the rest of the world was doing" and set regulations to keep the ski industry going through COVID-19. 

"But I wouldn't want to be in any of the decision makers shoes through all of this," says Reid. 

Horseshoe did make the decision to allow visitors from Toronto and other areas still under a stay-at-home order to come and ski. Reid says it was difficult to "police something like that."

Under the new COVID restrictions, skiers and snowboarders have to wear masks when waiting in a lift line. (Erik White/CBC )

But Batawa ski hill near Trenton has barred skiers from stay-at-home zones, and some operators in northern Ontario have mused about closing the door on customers from the south.

John Ball, the general manger of Snow Valley resort, says the "elephant in the room" for all businesses in the Barrie area is the tens of thousands of cars still coming up Highway 400 every day.

He is confident though that the COVID-19 restrictions will keep the virus from spreading on the slopes and hopeful that the hill will stay open, as the province has said skiing will continue even in areas that fall into a grey lockdown zone. 

Ball says his resort invested over $1 million in snowmaking and new technology to meet the new regulations.

He says the government has kept "moving the goal posts" and says not being open for Christmas, Family Day weekend and March break — which has now been moved to mid-April, when skiing is normally wrapped up — means 70 per cent of the season has slipped away. 

"Financially it's devastating," Ball says.

He says Snow Valley will likely cut back on infrastructure improvements in the coming years. But others in the Ontario ski business say some smaller hills might close for good after this COVID-19 season.

After keeping ski hills closed for most of the past year, the Ontario government now says skiing and snowboarding will continue, even in areas that fall back into lockdown. (Erik White/CBC )

Tom Hutchinson from Boogie Mountain says his non-profit club has survived thanks to an $87,000 operating grant from the federal government. He thinks the rest of the ski industry should get a government bailout.

"If we had known before there was a good possibility we'd be closed, I'm sure most of the places wouldn't have made as much snow. If they had told us the possibilities in the summer, a lot of the infrastructure projects would have been put on hold," he says. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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