Travel ban discussions distract from deeper issues

If new measures around ski resorts focus solely on travel, they’re missing the mark

SPIN publisher Brandi Schier

Throughout the last several months we’ve watched COVID rear its nasty head in our neighbouring mountain towns. First Banff and Lake Louise, Whistler, then Big White, Fernie and Whistler again. We’ve held collective bated breath when isolated cases have appeared in Sun Peaks, and congratulated ourselves when the sense of imminent danger passed. 

The cause and effect seems clear. People travelling to these communities, potentially breaking non-essential travel recommendations, are to blame. The simple solution? More restrictions and harsher punishments, right? Following this line of logic last week both the premier and the PHO hinted that stronger regulations aimed at ski resorts are on the way. 

But the numbers tell a different story. Travel, both international and domestic, is not the smoking gun it’s being made out to be. According to BCCDC, “local contact with a known case or cluster has been the most commonly reported source of infection across all pandemic phases to date.” Travel industry leaders (who obviously have a vested interest), have long voiced that travel is not the cause of the rise in cases and there is no hard evidence to support further restrictions or bans. Trudeau’s announcement of extended international travel regulations is unlikely to have an immediate effect on B.C.’s communities; the total cases linked back to international travel last week’s reporting period was one. 

Certainly, domestic travel and cross community transmission is a factor, and I’m not advising people to disregard current and necessary recommendations, as thousands of Canadians have been. But there are deeper issues at play. 

A much larger number that’s not getting the attention it deserves is the fact that 30 to 40 per cent of new COVID cases in B.C. are related to the workplace. That means, as essential and somewhat less essential workers walk into their jobs every day, they’re playing a game of Russian roulette. And for the most part, as communities we’ve been ok with sending a certain segment of the population into this environment, where a single slip up in safety measures could have lasting effects on their health.

The subtext is clear; while it’s relatively safe to be a guest in a restaurant or hotel, it’s becoming markedly less safe to work in one. Close working conditions, prolonged exposure to coworkers, and the very real threat of COVID fatigue and resulting lax safety precautions make these workplaces potentially dangerous places to be. While I have no doubt most employers in Sun Peaks are taking safety measures seriously, and perhaps our low COVID numbers are a testament to that, once a staff member is infected the cards are stacked against them. 

In mountain communities you can layer on rural and limited health care services and communication systems, overcrowded housing conditions and a culture of social gatherings. That said, it’s tempting to lay the blame at the individual feet of people who decide to socialize as normal, however the problem is a collective one and needs to be addressed as such. 

We’re being asked to live in two realities. The first, a world where millions of people are being irrevocably impacted by a swift and evolving virus, and the second, where people are being told it’s both safe and necessary to go to work in service and hospitality positions. The cognitive dissonance required to simultaneously live in these two worlds over a prolonged period is damaging, to our minds and to our communities. Tensions are high and we are divided, blaming others who make different decisions than ourselves, or people from regions where COVID cases are higher. 

Living in a tourism dependent community, this isn’t just an abstract problem. Every decision made regarding the travel industry has a tangible impact on my friends and neighbors. This isn’t about just going skiing (which by the way has a magical ability to lift my spirits in this desperate time). It’s about the survival of small businesses and the people who depend on them. For the first time since its inception, the Sun Peaks Food Bank is looking at depleted stocks and requesting donations, a sure fire sign the extended travel bans are having a very real impact on our community’s households. This is really about the long term health of tourism dependent communities. 

I’m not advocating for a shut down. I’m not advocating for looser travel restrictions. What I’m advocating for is for people to demand more of their leaders at every level. Simply put, they are in positions of power to protect us. Leaders are there to make the tough decisions in times of great need, not to pander to populist whims and popularity polls. We’ve paid taxes our entire lives so the state has the ability to keep us healthy. I don’t have the resources, access to experts, and legislative powers to make the right decisions or provide much needed support for millions of people, or for tourism dependent communities, but they do. We gave it to them. 

On Sunday, as a nation we marked a grime milestone; 20,000 people have passed away due to COVID-19. It’s a significant loss of life, yet somehow it’s hard to reconcile the true impact in my mind. I’m jaded, numbed by statistics published every day. Somewhere along the way, we made a very dangerous turn, and I have no idea how to right the course. 

So it’s easy to tune out, engage in the potentially toxic positivity of ski culture, and keep the blinders on to the mixture of luck, privilege and other factors that have kept me relatively safe. And if you’re taking your cue from our leaders, turn to an easy scapegoat like travel to keep from addressing the more complicated issues. 

While the days are getting longer, there’s still two and half months left of this ski season. Anticipating the second wave, we knew it was going to be a long winter heading in, but even the most patient people are being worn down to hair triggers. Which is too bad, because if we can’t rely on our political leaders to keep us safe, we need to rely even more on each other. 

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