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‘The decision is yours’: Schweitzer threatens closure if mask mandate not taken seriously

UPDATED: Thu., Dec. 3, 2020

Skiers ride up Schweitzer Mountain’s Great Escape quad chair on March 6, 2020. The resort announced it would pause twilight skiing for two weeks due to noncompliance with mask and social distance policies.  (Eli Francovich)
Skiers ride up Schweitzer Mountain’s Great Escape quad chair on March 6, 2020. The resort announced it would pause twilight skiing for two weeks due to noncompliance with mask and social distance policies. (Eli Francovich)

Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain Resort threatened Thursday to close unless skiers and snowboarders start voluntarily masking up.

“If we cannot get this under control, I’m willing to shut down the entire operation until we’re able to open additional lifts and terrain,” said Tom Chasse, the resort’s president, in an email to season pass holders and newsletter subscribers.

Schweitzer requires that all skiers and snowboarders wear a mask, or another type of face covering, when waiting in lift lines.

Because of the pandemic, the resort is only loading members of the same household onto chairlifts. At the same time, much of the mountain remains closed due to limited snowfall. These two factors have led to long lift lines, Chasse said.

When he skied the mountain on Sunday, Chasse said, roughly 90% of guests were masked up in line. However, the 10% that weren’t are taxing mountain staff.

“A lot of teenage kids,” he said of the main offenders. “They’ll put it up. But as soon as they go by you, they drop it down.”

Most people aren’t defensive or aggressive when asked to cover up. Instead, they need a “constant reminder.” But having to do the reminding is getting to be too much.

“It’s unrealistic to staff every bathroom, every lift line and every indoor space to remind guests to mask up,” he wrote.

The letter, which was posted on Facebook around 1 p.m., comes just days after Bonner County Sheriff Daryl Wheeler said he would not enforce a North Idaho mask mandate. That proclamation was followed by a Bonner County commissioner threatening to cut funding to the Panhandle Health District.

Chasse’s letter references the turmoil, stating that “the pandemic has become somewhat of a political issue locally.”

The Panhandle Health District Board of Health, which serves Kootenai, Benewah, Boundary, Shoshone and Bonner counties, passed a mask mandate Nov. 19 for the five-county district. Schweitzer, located north of Sandpoint, is in Bonner County.

Those conflicting messages have created “challenges for us,” wrote Chasse.

Amanda Hargreaves of Spokane skied at Schweitzer on Nov. 21, the resort’s opening weekend. She said few people were wearing masks, to the point where she was worried for her health.

“I was getting jostled by some guy who was not in a mask and (I was) getting really mad about it,” she said.

However, when she returned to the resort last weekend, most people were covering their face: “There was a 100% difference.”

Skiers or snowboarders who don’t want to cover their faces have until Dec. 11 to roll their season passes forward a year.

“If you’re not happy with our protocol, even if you’ve skied every day this season, we will roll your pass next year. Just take the year off,” Chasse said. “I don’t want you to come here and be miserable.”

Schweitzer is only open to season pass holders on the weekends, and there are a limited number of day passes available midweek. By Dec. 18, the resort will start selling a limited number of day tickets all week.

Indoor seating and dining has also been spaced out.

Across the country, resorts have grappled with how to open, or if to open, during the pandemic. Most have adopted similar regulations to Schweitzer.

“When I sent my blog out today, the board for the National Ski Areas Association was commending us for taking such a strong stance,” Chasse said.

Tom Stebbins, an administrator for Ski the Northwest Rockies website, liked Schweitzer’s message.

“I thought it was really well communicated,” he said. “I can’t argue with that. If you don’t wear a mask, we will all be shut down.”

In Europe, the response has been more drastic.

Resorts in France, Germany and Italy are essentially closed over the holidays as Europe tries to avoid a surge in cases. Leaders of all three countries have asked that all European countries cancel winter sports until Jan. 10.

France is going as far as conducting random border checks, trying to bust French skiers going to and from foreign resorts.

Those closures and restrictions come after at least 28 people died from COVID-19 after visiting Ischgl in March. The Austrian ski town, known for bountiful snow and endless parties, is thought to have been a key accelerant of the fist COVID-19 wave in Europe.

U.S. skiers and ski industry insiders want to avoid widespread shutdowns.

“We need everyone to do their part,” Chasse wrote. “Hopefully we can all slow the spread and continue to shred.”

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