Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Sun Valley, ID Has one of the Highest COVID-19 Infection Rates in the Nation: Is Skiing to Blame?

Sun Valley Resort in Idaho has one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S. Photo by Sun Valley/Facebook.
It appears as though ski resorts in both Europe and North America have served as the initial transmission centers for COVID-19 once the fatal disease escaped China's borders. Ketchum, Idaho — home to world-class ski area Sun Valley — has one of the highest infection rates for COVID-19 in the entire U.S. Another popular ski destination in Austria — Ischgl — has been linked to the spread of over 2,500 cases and is currently the subject of an associated criminal investigation.

But why ski areas? Why skiers? In order to understand how this disease spread as rapidly as it has, you have to take a look at the weeks leading up to this crisis.

In an article written by Michael Ames in The New Yorker, a large gathering of over 700 skiers and snowboarders who traveled from all over the U.S. and parts of Europe is described taking place at Sun Valley Resort in early March. The occasion? They were celebrating the annual Black Summit of the National Brotherhood of Skiers (N.B.S.) which is the largest African-American ski and snowboard association in the world. The event took place on March 6 and featured a performance by DJ Jazzy Jeff, an American record producer, DJ, actor, and comedian who is best known for his friendship and collaboration with Will Smith as DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince.

A packed party scene in the Austrian ski village of Ischgl in March 2020.
Brotherhood members skied, mingled, partied, stayed in hotels, enjoyed large, group dinners, and apparently had blast. But their good times were short-lived. Hundreds of Brotherhood members came down with ghastly symptoms resembling COVID-19 in the week after returning home from their vacation. Many were hospitalized and several have since died. Michael Ames with The New Yorker writes:
By the following week, upward of a hundred and twenty-six members of the Brotherhood had come down with symptoms of the coronavirus. Twenty tested positive for COVID-19, and eight were hospitalized, including three in intensive-care units. On March 30th, DJ Jazzy Jeff announced that he was suffering from pneumonia and associated coronavirus symptoms. In the days since, two longtime N.B.S. members, Nathaniel Jackson, of Pasadena, and Charles Jackson, of Los Angeles, who shared a room while in Sun Valley, have died of the illness.
This was in mid-March. The disease has now spread to all 50 states and can be found in at least 184 countries. And the root of it all could be skiing — or at least skiers, specifically those who travel. You would think that ski gear like gloves and cloth face masks paired with wide-open spaces of fresh mountain air could be potential blockers towards spreading the coronavirus — but that isn't necessarily the case.
“It started as an epidemic of skiers,” German Professor Hans-Georg Krausslich, the head of virology at University Hospital in Heidelberg, said.
Just think about it. When you're skiing at a resort, you're constantly sharing chair lifts and gondola rides with strangers. Who knows how many people they've come in contact with in the past 24 hours alone? You're also touching things like lift-safety bars and lodge door handles, or maybe even wiping your cold, runny nose on your ski mittens from time to time. Those microorganisms live on whatever you touch and can even spread in the air you breathe out, only to be absorbed by the next person that comes within close proximity of you.

In Denmark, the first identified infection came from a Danish skier returning from an Italian ski holiday. In Mexico, the chairman of the Mexican Stock Exchange tested positive after returning from a ski trip to Colorado’s Vail resort, along with several other Mexican nationals who went with him, according to the New Yorker. They are possibly the first individuals who brought the virus to Mexico. Meanwhile, in California, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area has the highest per-capita rate of COVID-19 in the state.

 A photo of a chairlift at Mammoth Mountain, California, which had to close early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo by The New York Times.
Sun Valley, along with all other Vail resorts — and now all North American ski resorts — has closed for the 2019/20 ski season, months ahead of the originally intended closing date. Social distancing protocols are being put in place nationwide and states are being locked down. Densely- populated regions like New York City are seeing shocking numbers of people dying from the coronavirus every day.

Yet, people are still flocking to small mountain or vacation towns. Local authorities — like those in Mono County, home to Mammoth Mountain — are pleading on news and social media outlets to keep people from visiting or staying in their short-term rental properties. This is because the medical system in Mono County and other remote, mountain-areas is already extremely limited and will not be able to handle the stress of the potential tidal wave of COVID-19 cases that is currently crashing down.

So is skiing to blame? Yes, partly. It's to blame as much as any other travel-related activity and industry. It's as much to blame as any organization or individual that was not adequately informed about the dangers of the coronavirus. But we are beyond the blame game now. Now, it is up to us to determine how we will collectively move forward in response to this ongoing, global crisis, with tactics such as social distancing, quarantine, economic shutdown, and the long list of other frightening words that fill up your news feed 24 hours of the day. Yet, a glimmer of hope remains: for hard times make strong people. And even in an absence of doing the things we love for the time being — like skiing a resort — we will only cherish them more once we do finally get to return to them again.

Healthcare workers rush a critical patient with symptoms of COVID-19 to emergency care. Photo by aljazeera.com.

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