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Covid-19 and its aftermath in a ski town

Saas-Fee. A beautiful sunrise on the Mittelallalin. Picture: Florian Imseng

Suddenly, it was all over: On March 13th the ski season in Saas-Fee ended. Five weeks too early. Hundreds of seasonal workers lost their income as a result of the Swiss Government's decision to shut down all ski resorts in the country. Local ski instructor Patrick Gasser describes how he experienced this unprecedented situation. Let’s go back to the beginning of March. The last week of our rush hour, the busiest time of the season. Swiss carnival has come to an end and the Netherlands is the last country enjoying regular school holidays. After the busy weeks that make up all of February, seasonal workers are looking forward to enjoying some time in the snow for themselves. And March not only means more time but also the best conditions in Saas-Fee: Due to the high altitude of the resort, we don’t have to worry about not having enough snow. And it started well: Warm weather with loads of sunshine and snowfalls here and there.

Skiing pow on March 7. Less than a week before than the season ends due the virus. Picture: Patrick Gasser

It Seemed A Long Way Off

I follow the news carefully, far more so than the average person. But to be honest, even I wasn't really worrying much about what was going on in Italy at that time. I saw that some resorts had introduced restrictions, with some only allowing half of the regular amount of people in a cable car cabin. And it was all a result of a virus called “Corona”. Corona? I'd heard that same name a few weeks before. The virus had forced the Chinese to build an emergency hospital in less than ten days to treat an ever-increasing number of patients. But China is a long way from here. And so it seemed, was Corona at the time. But the situation in Italy got worse and worse. One ski resort after another closed. Switzerland itself, banned gatherings of more than 1’000 people. But even then, I was far from imagining that this could be my last week of work as a ski instructor for the entire season.

The Perfect Source

Then everything escalated, in just days. Ski resorts in Austria started to shut down and it emerged that the virus had spread all over the world. And apparently, the ski resorts with their gondolas and après-ski bars had been a major source of the spread. I kept following the news and saw the increasing number of deaths, especially in the north of Italy. At that point, it was no longer a question of whether, but when, Saas-Fee has to close as well.

Black Friday

Perhaps it was fitting that it should be a black Friday, a thirteenth. I had a morning class with guests from Germany and Belgium, who had made great progress during the week. The sun was shining and the snow conditions were prime. But there was only one topic on anyone's mind: The virus. Everyone was nervously awaiting the Swiss government press conference to be held later that day. I had the afternoon off and somehow did not feel like skiing. I preferred to go home to watch the live stream of the press meeting. It was no surprise, that there were more restrictions coming due to the virus. But the breadth of the rules introduced by the government was shocking. In retrospect, they seem to have made the right decisions. But at the time it seemed extreme: Restaurants and most shops have to close. And the ski resorts. At the end of the speeches, we were faced with no less than the greatest restrictions on public life since World War II.

That’s it. We are done for good. Ski season is over. Not from Monday on, as I had initially guessed, but from tomorrow. The Last Après

Après-Ski Bar in Sölden. Picture: Patrick Gasser

And so, I went for a walk. And a beer. Writing these lines now in a ghost town feels surreal. As is usually the case on a Friday afternoon, the après-ski bars were pretty crowded. Nobody yet cared about keeping their distance. Bar staff and guests alike had no idea at the time that this was to be the last après-ski of the season. But soon the news started to spread faster than the virus: The cook from Italy, the girl from the Czech Republic behind the bar, the taxi driver from Portugal: they were all going to be out of work from tomorrow onwards. What followed is an evening I will never forget. Most people had an idea that the ski resort could shut down as the result of newspaper articles. But nobody was really prepared for the reality. I went for dinner at a restaurant with friends who also just lost their jobs. We chatted with the server. Later the cook joined us. They are in constant contact with their relatives at home. Some want to stay in Saas-Fee, but most want to go home. One border after the other will close in the coming days. A few days later, Switzerland starts to close its borders too. For the first time since World War II, the Swiss Army is mobilized, to assist the doctors and nurses in the hospitals. But also to assist at the borders.

When you know, it is all over: Dinner on Friday, March 13. Picture: Patrick Gasser

Keeping Distance

The state of emergency in Switzerland has now been in place for two weeks. Saas-Fee looks like a ghost town. So does Zermatt. And Verbier, St. Moritz and all the other famous ski towns. Most people are staying at home - as has been recommended by the Swiss government. Gatherings of more than five people are prohibited. The supermarkets and pharmacies are the only shops open. The official number of people infected by the virus reached 10’000 on March 25. We do not have a curfew-like Italy or Austria. But social distance is the word of the hour. 2 meters at least. No groups with more than five people. As we live in a remote village - well a ghost town now - these guidelines seem not hard to follow. Indeed I barely ever meet five people on my way to the supermarket. Keeping our distance seems to be very easy in Saas-Fee these days. Keeping Moving

I cannot stay inside my apartment the whole day. As long as it is not prohibited I will be spending time outdoors. And as long there is snow on the ground, I will do so with skis on my feet. I've already logged plenty of vertical meters - which is bizarre for me because I never actually count vertical meters. Usually, I only ski uphill to access fresh powder snow (or corn in spring). But in the last winters, I've started to enjoy the way up more and more. But never considered that one day I would tour up to ski pistes with average conditions at best. We are keeping to small groups and only ride mellow runs we have skied countless times. Now is not the time to look for new challenges in skiing, but merely to keep yourself moving. If you haven't done enough skiing to feel 100% confident with what you are doing, go for a jog. Or build a fitness circuit in your garden. The ski slopes now belong to nature again, with all its risks. Avalanche control work by the ski patrol has ceased and the crevasses on the glacier slopes are slowly opening again.

Never considered that one day I would tour up to ski pistes with average conditions at best. Picture: Patrick Gasser

Learning From The Crisis

I am doing ok here in Saas-Fee so far - despite having virtually no income and not knowing if the virus has already hit us, or if we have somehow escaped so far. I know, things are changing fast and could get worse. But I'm optimistic that things will be back to normal in the near future. We have no idea when, but the government thinks early summer. But whenever it is, there will certainly be a time when the virus is history. In the meantime, our planet is taking a very short breather.

I very much hope that we can learn some lessons from this difficult time: Because the Corona crisis can also be an opportunity. It's becoming apparent that in many professions it is also possible to work from home. Traffic on the streets has decreased significantly. And why do we always have to travel halfway around the world? Suddenly people are discovering that nature’s beauty is on their own doorsteps during their quarantine walks.

The virus is killing people and putting a huge strain on our society. But it's also like nature is forcing us to pause and think. Politicians around the world are being forced to take drastic measures to protect their populations, and those same measures are helping nature recover. There is no “maybe” anymore, a slowdown is possible, and there is almost no resistance to the new restrictions. What if this drastic action was suddenly introduced to climate protection?

For the moment, however, it is time to think of all the people on the front line helping us through: Doctors, nurses, hospital staff and more. All of whom have to risk their own health to save lives.

Take care and stay healthy!


Ski Paradise
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