COVID-19 and quarantine thinned the ranks of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol last month, pulling 13 people—about a fifth of the roster—off the mountains at one point in mid-January, according to emails obtained and verified by the Idaho Mountain Express.
The Friday before Martin Luther King Day weekend, 12 patrollers on Bald Mountain and one on Dollar were “out of the game,” patrol Director Mike Davis told his staff in an email apparently sent to the entire patrol on Jan 15. Six returned positive tests for COVID-19, five were isolating due to close contact and two were sidelined with reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine, Davis said.
The patrol’s first positive test came five days before the all-staff message, on Sunday, Jan. 10, Davis wrote.
“We have done an excellent job in avoiding the virus up until the first symptoms and positive test last Sunday,” he wrote. “While this event is unfortunate, it was not unexpected. With the Christmas and New Year holidays coupled with [an avalanche] control morning, and with the influx of our skiing guests from around the world, it was unavoidable.”
That email came two days after Davis told staff that several patrollers were out “for various reasons” in a message spelling out specifics for their upcoming vaccination process. At that time, he encouraged patrollers to schedule vaccine appointments around work schedules, citing the need “to maintain coverage on both Dollar and Baldy during operational hours.”
The ski patrol has 67 people on the roster, according to its website. Contacted by the Idaho Mountain Express for this story, Sun Valley Co. did not respond to questions about the current size of the staff. Bridget Higgins, Sun Valley’s director of marketing and public relations, said the company wouldn’t answer specific questions or comment on details related to the flare-up, including how many patrollers are currently out with COVID-19 or isolating due to contact; how many other mountain operations employees are out due to the disease or related protocols; the status of vaccination among patrollers; or what internal policies the company has put in place do manage the pandemic among its employees.
Higgins referred the Express to the health and safety policy on the company’s website, at sunvalley.com/health-and-safety.
“The health and safety of our employees, guests and the community is paramount to Sun Valley’s winter operating plan,” Higgins said in a statement. “The policies in place for employees and our ask of guests continue to be in place to follow the guidance from the CDC, Idaho Department of Health and Blaine Country Health Department.
“We have been blessed with snow that has allowed us to open more terrain and allow people to access all 2,500-plus acres of terrain on Bald Mountain. We continue to ask our guests to comply with all posted guidelines, such as wearing a mask and physically distancing and on signage around the resort.”
(For more information on that, Higgins referred guests to sunvalley.com/winter-faqs)
In his Jan. 15 email, Davis praised his patrol for their work during the pandemic. And, he suggested that the “yurt system”—designed to limit exposure by restricting the size of working teams and assigning them to specific on-mountain bases of operation—seemed to be working. Most of the patrollers who returned positive tests came out of the same squad or patrol headquarters, he said.
The email also suggested that he believed most of the patrol would be vaccinated soon, though he urged continued caution. Davis wrote that any patroller worried about their personal safety at work should contact him directly to discuss those concerns, and options moving forward.
“We must all continue to follow our COVID protocols for the next several months to keep our friends, loved ones and community healthy,” he said. “I believe we have weathered the worst of this situation and we have already seen a slowing of the spread within the ranks.
“I could not be prouder of our team during these trying times. Hang in there, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”