COVID-19 Presents Ski Towns With a Conundrum

sun valley
Photo: Courtesy of CSNafzger/Shutterstock

Here in Sun Valley, Idaho—America’s Original Ski Town and the birthplace of POWDER Magazine—we have:

– The cleanest air.
– The darkest skies.
– A 3,000-foot ski hill in town.
– World famous mountain biking.
– The highest rates of COVID-19 in the world.

Aside from world-class recreation, Sun Valley, like many other ski towns, is built on social activity and outsiders coming to visit us. From skiing, hiking, and biking with friends, to drinking, dancing, and shopping with strangers, the fabric of our society is interwoven with physical, cultural and social activity.

Whether you are sharing a chairlift with locals, second homeowners who spend half their time here, or tourists blown away by the magic of the mountains, ski towns depend on visitors to properly function. We need that cashflow from out-of-towners to build our schools and hospitals, run our lifts, pay our salaries, and keep our businesses afloat.

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For over 80 years, folks from around the world have come here to experience mountain town culture. Born and raised as a fifth generation Idahoan, I started my career as an ER doctor in Seattle until moving back to the Gem State to work in Sun Valley’s Emergency Department.

Because the hospital had been built and abundantly outfitted by generous donations from folks from all over who love it here, we can deliver many of the same services available at Seattle’s Evergreen Hospital, which is now on the front lines of the large-scale coronavirus assault in the US.

Just a month ago, I thought we were lucky to be so remote; this virus was invading the nation’s urban areas but was worlds away from our pristine little corner of the rural Mountain West. I dialed my old partner to hear about how our comrades were fairing back in Seattle’s infectious war zone.

Some of my former coworkers there are sick, one is fighting for his life from exposure to the virus. The urgency in his voice was palpable, but the threat from the invisible tiny invader still seemed distant to me. We had made the right move, or so I thought. Within a few days of our chat I fell ill and was diagnosed with COVID-19 myself.

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After days of fatigue, intermittent fevers, cough, shortness of breath, insomnia, and loss of taste and smell, my symptoms were slowly improving. I would not suffer the same terrible fate as so many. Two more of my partners in Ketchum would test positive and others would be placed on mandatory quarantine for exposure to the virus.

Further, almost a quarter of our nursing and support staff was sidelined by the disease. Our rural hospital was temporarily crippled, necessitating transient closure of our inpatient unit. The ER doors remained opened thanks to our regional health system filling these gaps with excellent docs and nurses from other departments and other areas of the state.

Sitting at home during my recovery, I frustratingly watched the online disease tracker continue to rise. Quickly it became clear that our little slice of Valhalla was one of the hardest hit areas in the country. Though sparsely populated, our rural county has an incidence of illness higher than New York City and Wuhan, China.

As data started to pour in from all over the country a trend emerged: This pandemic is hammering ski towns. Early data showed that Park City, Vail, Mammoth, Crested Butte, and Aspen were all suffering similar fates. As inherent destinations for world travel in winter months, these mountain escapes from big city life proved breeding grounds for international viruses during the time of year humans are most likely to spread them.

As cities such as Seattle and San Francisco began to close schools, some living there saw the opportunity to load up their potentially asymptomatic families in the SUV and head to their second home in the mountains. Might as well make a ski vacation out of a lockdown, right?

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While other rural areas might be more insulated from the pandemic, mountain resorts were being decimated by COVID-19 with a one-two punch; global ski tourists mixing with second homeowners who fled infected cities to these socially vibrant mountain communities which welcomed outsiders with open arms.

And herein lies the conundrum. How do we encourage social distancing and stay-in-place orders to manage our limited rural resources while holding onto the economic engine that drives these little towns? Is it right or even legal to all of a sudden dictate who can come, who can seek refuge, and who must leave?

To only add to the dilemma, ski towns have some of the highest infection rates in the country while conversely equipped with small hospitals. No one can be sure how this sickness got to our town, but what we do know is that these places are not safe havens. Our incredibly high infection rates will likely lead to increased transmission of the virus.

Despite this, people still flock here to escape COVID-19. I am concerned that they are putting themselves at an increased risk of falling victim to this pandemic in the very place they seek to avoid it.

Meanwhile the strain on our already limited rural healthcare infrastructure worsens. There are quite a few out-of-towners who have traveled to Sun Valley who now require hospitalization. Who knows if they brought it with them, or if they caught it here?

It doesn’t matter. What matters now is that we’re all in this together.

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After about two weeks of being glued to the couch and living on a steady diet of Tylenol and orange juice, I noticed my fever was gone and my energy was returning. My delightful public health nurse finally cleared me to leave my home. I went for a hike and ski; my lungs held up.

Three days later it was time to get back to work in the ER. Luckily as I returned, so did most of my partners and many of our excellent nurses. As a little hospital, we are back in fighting shape. We’re ready to give the best care we can to everyone that comes through our doors. We just need your help. We need to focus on who’s here now.

Stay in place. If you’re here, please don’t leave and take the virus elsewhere. If you’re elsewhere, please stay there for now so these little towns can convalesce.

We know that most people recover from this virus. We also know that in order for Sun Valley to recover, we will need our out-of-town tribe to eventually return to our trails, shops and restaurants. Whether you’re looking out your window at mountains or skyscrapers right now, we are all part of this community that we love so much.

Let’s all do our part to get through this. When this battle is over, all of us with a stake in this delightful little paradise are going to be ready to cut loose and get back to enjoying this place together.

This article originally appeared on and was republished with permission.

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