The World's safest skiing with COVID-19 on the loose

snow action team 29.04.2020

Where is the World’s safest skiing with COVID-19 on the rampage? Some might think that’s a crazy question after we’ve seen the resort shutdowns and shocking scenes out of Europe and America. Never mind those headlines about rich Aussies fleeing Aspen lockdowns to fly home even after testing positive, and then swanning about as if rules/responsibility to your fellow citizens just don’t apply.

No question, a crisis sure brings out the best and worst in people. It also quickly sorts out competence from ideology in how governments and nations react. And how good your public health systems are.

Mt Iwate in Iwate Prefecture, the World's safest skiing with COVID-19 on the loose - they still have zero cases
Recognise this peak and you’ll likely guess where the safest resort skiing is © Hachimantai DMO

Colorado’s Governor shut down skiing there in March as infection clusters started appearing in ski resorts – especially Pitkin County, where Aspen is. Other American states followed suit, and other resorts did so whether ordered to by state or local authorities or as a precautionary measure.

As did national governments across Europe as the pandemic set in.

Ski resorts and community spread of a virus are not a good combination. What was always true for STDs is more so now that a cough, never mind a kiss, is enough to infect others. For example, mega resorts with pumping nightlife like Ischgl in Austria saw some early big outbreaks. Austria generally did very well subsequently to get things back under control, but skiing was shut down out of neccesity.

The better the aprés ski, the worse the outcome as a rule – Snowmass going off © Owain Price

Fortunately in Australia and New Zealand largely competent responses from our governments, and most people going along with those, have allowed us to avoid the deadly scenarios playing out elsewhere. Without the Ruby Princess cruise ship disaster Australia’s record would be much better still.

The simplest measure of how effective containment and response is has to be deaths per capita (source Worldometers*). For Australia it’s just 3 per million. For NZ it’s only 4. Compare that to 647 in Belgium, 519 in Spain, 384 in the UK, or 185 in the USA, and I don’t think many of us would begrudge our isolation limitations. *Figures updated 30/04/2020 – check latest on the link.

Japan is another big success story.

Just 3 deaths per million people, like Australia. Given they have the oldest population of any major nation on the planet that’s an even better number.

Japan also had it’s own Princess cruises moment on February 3rd, but they shut the ship down in quarantine at Yokohama Harbour. As the cases mounted on board there was a lot of media coverage, which at the time started to give the impression that maybe COVID-19 was going to get out of control in Japan too.

Which brings us back to ski resorts, and finding just where is the World’s safest skiing with COVID-19 on the loose.

We were keeping a very close eye on how the virus was spreading in Japan from late January through to mid-February prior to our own trip. But we saw no evidence of any telltale upswing of the infections curve, so we left as scheduled on the 18th of February for a two week / five Prefecture mission. As usual, the flight was full of fellow Japow lovers, a few sporting masks but generally no one seemed to be too worried.

On arrival in Haneda Airport they were already temperature testing arrivals. The finger printing at customs was being sanitised and wiped down between each arrival, with extra machines and staff added to do that, so the whole entry process was no slower than normal.

Despite some uptick in Japanese cases recently, which led to a State of Emergency being declared and more restrictions over their big Golden Week holiday period at the moment, the reality is all through February, March and most of April Japanese ski resorts stayed open with NO adverse effects on the spread of the virus. And contrary to some media reports, there has been no surge in cases now.

Overall Japan’s closures and lockdown measures were generally less rigorous than ours. But wearing masks is already common in public (we have done so for years negotiating the subway and on crowded trains/through airports there to help avoid catching colds or flu) and general hygiene levels are pretty good in Japan, based on a lifetime of training. One example, the idea of ‘office cleaning’ is just not a concept there, you keep your own work area clean .. And ditto for kids at school!

We travelled a lot, far more than most people just on holiday do, but never had any problems. We masked up on a couple of full shinkansens and avoided coughers .. but that’s been a habit for years, at home or away. On the flight home, also packed as usual, in early March everyone was more nervous, more concerned and mostly masking up.

Powder riding in Appi March 2020
No shutdown. No virus. Plenty of pow this March at Appi in Iwate © Appi

Japan just kept on skiing

While the horrendous totals of cases and deaths continued to grow across Europe, and then the USA, Japan continued largely unaffected. The contrast couldn’t have been greater in skiing.

Niigata Prefecture is home to Japan’s busiest ski resort, Gala Yuzawa, and popular international ones like Naeba-Kagura, Nozawa Onsen and the Myoko areas. Yet as at 27 April (based on data from Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare) there had been only 76 confirmed covid-19 cases in the prefecture, and no deaths.

So skiing any of those would have to be – and has been these past several months – a pretty safe bet.

Iwate Prefecture in northern Honshu stands out even more. Iwate is the second most sparsely populated Prefecture in Japan (after Hokkaido) and amazingly still as I write this (April 29) has zero cases of COVID-19!

So the excellent Iwate ski areas like Appi, Hachimantai Shimokura and Hachimantai Panorama, Shizukuishi and Geto Kogen have to get the nod as the World’s safest resort skiing with COVID-19 out there.

It turns out less competition for fresh lines also translates into less chance of getting sick. We told you they were good last year, and you responded in droves – Aussie visitation to Hachimantai was up 600% this season, even with the abrupt early end when flights were stopped and travel banned ex-Australia back in March.

In fact Appi and Geto only closed last week, in response to the current State of Emergency.

The key takeout from this (apart from where to go next Japow trip!) is that with community spread of the virus low to non-existent, and common sense hygiene/protection measures in place, there can be little or no spread in ski resorts either. So there is no reason per se that ski resorts have to shut down.

New and confirmed Covid-19 cases in Australia 29/04/2020
Flattening the curve; source health.gov.au 29/04/2020

Which brings us back to Australia and New Zealand

New Zealand is looking good for shutting down the virus, especially in the South Island, with very few new cases there. Apart from a cluster of 98 cases from a wedding in Bluff (right at the bottom of the South Island, better known for awesome oysters), and a cluster of 38 cases from an international conference in Queenstown, there have been very few cases at all south of Christchurch (source NZ Ministry of Health).

So Queenstown and Wanaka are looking pretty safe. As NZ moves out of their super strict lockdown the chances of ski resorts opening – at least for locals – would have to be on the up and up. Whether the rest of us can get there depends how domestic and international travel restarts go.

On the hill with a bit of common sense on the cleanliness / distancing / behaviour (not sneezing over the person next to you on the chair etc) things should be fine. Packed aprés bars will no doubt need to thin out to stay open – as venues will most places.

In Australia the Snowy Mountains stands out in NSW for having just a handful of cases also, and none for several weeks (based on postcode data for all cases from NSW Health).

Which surely means as for Queenstown that locals at least would be able to ski safely enough now. Seasonal employees from outside the area could be tested and/or quarantined locally perhaps.

Victoria has a lot less total cases than NSW. We couldn’t access postcode case data on the government’s website, but it would be surprising if there were many cases in the alpine areas, especially in the north east further from Melbourne.

So again, if there are no local cases skiing would not make any difference at all as far as locals go.

With a few more weeks containment generally continuing in both states the figures should be looking even more favourable. Which will beg the question why shouldn’t the ski resorts open?

If several hundred boofy big blokes will be OK to jump all over each other in the restarted NRL every week, why not skiers and boarders who mainly avoid such close contact?

Doing the obvious of beefing up santizing measures and spacing out of crowds – funnel 4 single lines onto the 8 seater chear, 3 onto 6s, 2 onto quads and triples etc or whatever if need be – will be minor irritations in the scheme of things. People have adapted better to shopping restrictions already.

If need be for peak weekends limit car access to X amount of vehicles with an online pre-registration for resort entry – get numberplate in the system, so it’s scannable by rangers/staff with fines or stopped at entry would be one way of doing that. Or simpler odd and even plate weekends – if there are limits on capacity vs a normal season then rationing it fairly and simply would achieve that.

Incidentally, why not slash/remove entry fees as a bushfire recovery measure?

Anyway that’s our 10 cents worth. Let’s go skiing, we could be the World’s second safest place to do that after Iwate!

SA gear tester Steve Crazy at Perisher last season © Owain Price