Dear Members of the Alta Community,
I write as the ski season is about to begin, and as the pandemic flares ever more hotly. Since the SARS-CoV-2 virus intruded abruptly in March, my unhappy expectations of this scourge have been met or exceeded. The Town of Alta’s staff and I have been unremitting in our efforts to steer a sensible course, and to do our best to protect the welfare of Alta’s residents, guests and businesses. The upcoming season will challenge us anew.
Alta wants and needs our ski area and lodges to open, for our jobs, for our town, for our mental and physical health. But we must be wise. Our safety, our operations, and our reputation depend on good judgment. We should not become super-spreaders. The threat is real, and it is irresponsible to pretend otherwise.
Structural factors that affect the likelihood of contagion include being indoors rather than out, and if indoors, the volume of the space, airflow, and presence of HEPA filters. Behavioral factors include the number of people, their proximity to one another, the duration of contact, the wearing of face coverings and their quality, and, importantly, whether people are silent or talking and, if talking, how loudly. The prevalence of the virus in a community also affects risk, of course, and Salt Lake County and the State of Utah are currently reporting rates many times greater than the threshold that puts us into the category of “very high” (https://coronavirus.utah.gov/case-counts/).
Our businesses can take actions to protect their employees, customers, and suppliers. These actions can be based on the best available science, and not just on general (and politicized) rules of thumb. I have access to a modeling process developed by experts at MIT and implemented by a team of their students. As discussed at the November Town Council work session (starts at 15:30 here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CiqP0p7H57Q) some of our businesses have been enthusiastic about learning about their specific parameters, and the team and I can offer this analysis to others, too.
We have learned, for example, that the highest risk to visitors is eating or drinking together indoors and talking while doing so. Unfortunately, the well-known heuristic of six feet between tables is insufficiently protective to lower the risk to an acceptable level. If people stay silent in common indoor spaces, like locker rooms or elevators, the risk is substantially lower than if they talk or, worse, shout. Riding a chairlift is relatively safe if everyone wears a face covering and standing in a lift line is likely ok if people speak quietly.
Given the prevalence of the virus in Salt Lake County and elsewhere, I appeal to the lodges to consider keeping their bars closed and delivering meals to guests’ rooms. And I urge the ski area to consider asking skiers to stay silent in lift lines and in indoor spaces including lockers and restrooms, and in Alf’s, Watson’s, and the Albion Grill.
The MIT modeling suggests that there is a big risk of transmission in our employee housing areas, and I implore everyone involved to be diligent. As our businesses know well, the threat of COVID-19 isn’t just to employees who might become ill, but to operations that will be disrupted if many employees need to isolate because of contact with someone who is infected.
I have requested help from SL County and from the state on implementing a robust testing protocol. I know that Dr. Libre and Alta Ski Lifts have been pursuing this idea as well. The main impediments are the current cost and availability of reliable tests for asymptomatic people, but I understand those conditions may ease in early 2021.
Our businesses have many fraught decisions to make, and the town will strive to be an effective and supportive partner. I have conveyed my concerns to Alta Ski Lifts about their plans to limit capacity through unreserved parking; first come, first served seems to me likely to create many complications for residents and visitors alike, encouraging people to arrive at Alta as early as possible, and filling town parking more quickly than usual. If they are not actively skiing, people will have nowhere to go other than their vehicles and sheltering in place in cars will work only for some. Visitors must have adequate food, water, and warm clothes in their vehicles, enough fuel, and to know how to avoid asphyxiation while running their engines. I worry that there may be times when bus riders are literally out in the cold.
My biggest concern is a sudden interlodge event that could trap thousands of people in Alta who do not have a safe space to shelter. Marshal Morey, Assistant Town Administrator Cawley and I have discussed how to avoid this potentially disastrous situation with UDOT, Alta Ski Lifts and Snowbird, Unified Police, Salt Lake County, and other partners. We have agreed that being especially conservative toward this risk is important this year and I ask for everyone’s patience if the canyon and ski area are closed at times when you think they could be open.
Less drastic, but still important, we are likely to close the canyon more often this year in response to traffic congestion during the day and overnight to avoid people coming to Alta in the mornings before avalanche mitigation and snow removal are completed. Doing so will likely inconvenience our businesses, residents and guests, and we will work to minimize avoidable disruptions.
I continue to explore possible avenues for financial help from various governmental agencies. We have been treated well by Salt Lake County in terms of CARES Act funding and they will continue to be a helpful partner. I am engaged with a new state initiative about winter tourism; I’ll report more on that as the project develops.
We are resilient, but we have to be careful. We are facing difficult times, but with good decisions and by working together we can aim at success.