I was expecting a ghost town when I dropped my 13-year-old daughter off at Okemo on Sunday. I’d been working from home in Brattleboro for months, only seeing the occasional friend for a walk, and assumed most Vermonters were similarly wary of public spaces during the pandemic.
So it was shocking to drive up to the mountain and see crowds waiting in the lift lines and cars swarming the parking lots, many of them with out-of-state plates. Through the lodge windows, I spotted people sitting at tables, indoors.
Despite the current surge in Covid-19, Vermont ski areas are open for business. The scene I witnessed at Okemo is likely the same at Stratton and Mount Snow, and further north at Sugarbush and Stowe. Apparently it is safe for out-of-state visitors to gather at our ski mountains, but it is not safe for Vermont kids to go cross-country skiing with their local clubs and teams.
On Nov. 13, Gov. Phil Scott shut down all youth and recreational sports, and on Nov. 24, he canceled all school winter sports until further notice. This ban includes Nordic skiing, an individual sport which is inherently distanced and outdoors, with no physical contact. Vermont kids aged 4 to 18 ski in the woods (or run, if there’s no snow) with clubs like the Bill Koch Youth Ski League or on school teams, building physical strength and mental clarity as they do.
Scott says he will review the ban each week, but as of Dec. 11 he claims the data do not support lifting it, and our children remain at home.
I’d like to ask Dr. Mark Levine why going to a crowded Alpine ski area is a low-risk Covid activity, while youth Nordic skiing is not. I’d like to ask Scott why out-of-state skiers (who have likely flouted quarantine laws) can enjoy our Vermont mountains and eat in our lodges, when Vermont kids are banned from meeting to exercise outdoors, masked and distanced, with their ski cohorts?
The answer is that money talks. The ski areas are a multi-billion dollar business with a powerful lobby — Okemo, Mount Snow, and Stowe are owned by Vail Resorts, which has been on a worldwide buying spree. This industry also provides vital seasonal jobs for Vermonters, who need them even more in this lifeless Covid economy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating to shut down the ski resorts. But if you’re going to let them open, then let our kids go out on the Nordic ski trails. Don’t tailor Vermont’s public health guidelines to benefit out-of-staters while Vermonters stay at home, isolated and at risk of depression as we head into a long Covid winter.
Because we need to talk about mental and emotional health, not only physical and economic health. I’m the mother of two teenage athletes who struggled with isolation and depression during the initial Covid shutdown. I’ve called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for one of my teens and live in fear of facing that darkness again.
Depression, suicidal ideation and substance use have all increased substantially for Americans during the pandemic, according to the CDC. I know that depression is rising in U.S. teens (particularly girls), and the Vermont suicide rate is higher than average and growing. Scott and his public health team should take these statistics into account while they calculate risk and continue to ban our children from playing sports.
Exercise is an effective, natural treatment to fight depression. Outside activity and exercise are what everyone needs right now, no matter their age. Vermont schools have shown they can follow health guidelines and run safe athletic programs that do not increase virus transmission. Our kids have already been through so much disappointment and disruption over the past 10 months. It’s time to let them go skiing.
Whitney is a former Nordic ski racer and coach. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Glamour, Ms. Magazine, the Washington Post, among others. Her next book is “You Don’t Have to Be Everything: Poems for Girls Becoming Themselves.” This was previously published at VTDigger.org.