Saturday 18 April 2020

‘A ghost town’: With tourist access cut off, Banff unemployment soars

Banff Avenue is deserted. The Goat’s Eye Express is swinging empty above Sunshine Village. The tourists, apple-cheeked after a bluebird day on the local mountains, are long gone. The gates to Banff National Park – the oldest in the country – swung shut behind them to help slow the spread of COVID-19, which to date has killed 44 in Alberta, with 1,651 confirmed cases. For now, only essential traffic is allowed through.

The town’s mayor, Karen Sorensen, says hotels are running at about 3-per-cent occupancy, and at least 5,000 people have been laid off. Unemployment in the mountain town has hit 85 per cent, according to local MLA Miranda Rosin.

Banff is “like a ghost town” right now, says 27-year-old bartender Connor Gravelle. Elk and deer have overtaken the mountain town’s vacant streets, he says, and their scat is everywhere. A litter of coyote pups have made his front yard their new playground. The town’s economy relies wholly on tourism, he says. “Without it, we have nothing.”
The streets of Banff, Alta., sit empty on April 13, 2020. TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
In 2012, visitors to the Rocky Mountain communities of Banff, Canmore and Jasper generated $1.1-billion in tourism spending, accounting for roughly 15 per cent of the total for all of Alberta, according to a study by the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “It’s very hard as a community for us to say, ‘Please stay home,’” Ms. Sorensen says. “But right now, we are begging people to please stay away.”

Banff might be one of the communities hit hardest by the country’s pandemic-related economic collapse, but it’s not alone. A number of Canadian tourism hotspots, from Tofino, B.C., on the west coast of Vancouver Island, to Cavendish, PEI, are bracing for a blow. Data from the Tourism Industry Association of Canada says the travel sector could lose up to $6-billion a month during the pandemic and nearly 800,000 jobs in total.

In Banff, the economy has “been devastated,” Ms. Sorensen says through tears. “We’re all waiting to hear what this season is going to look like. At this point, we don’t know if anything will open.”

Up until the park shut down, “incredible” snow conditions had drawn a steady stream of skiers to its three hills, according to Leslie Bruce, the president and CEO of Banff & Lake Louise Tourism. And since Easter typically marks the end of ski season, the long weekend is usually pandemonium, with spring skiers packing the town’s bars and restaurants.

Local businesses should also be scrambling to staff up for the peak summer season. From June to September, local hotels run at 90-per-cent capacity, Ms. Sorensen says. More than one million people explore the park’s 6,600 square kilometres, half of them from outside Canada.

Cassidy Geddes and Pamela Traut, owners of the Beatnik Salon, say their lease is 'going to slowly bleed us dry.'  TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Cassidy Geddes, a Toronto native who opened Beatnik Salon with his wife, Pam Traut, in the Wolf & Bear Mall three years ago, says they’re “just trying to stay afloat until things pick up.”

They built their bustling business (which doubles as a concert space in the evening) from scratch, says Mr. Geddes, an Aveda-trained stylist who visited Banff for a ski holiday eight years ago and never left. “This set us back to square one very quickly.”

Their biggest worry is their lease: “It’s going to slowly bleed us dry,” he says, pointing out that Banff may have small-town charm, but its landlords rent space at “downtown Toronto” rates.

If the park gates remain closed for more than another month, “we’ll have to close shop.”

The town has launched an Emergency Co-ordination Centre to help temporary foreign workers find flights home and connect newly unemployed residents with government supports. Meanwhile, the Grizzly House, a Banff landmark, is delivering free home-cooked meals to people in need. Several other restaurants are opening their fridges and pantries, giving away food to those in need. Everyone seems to be doing what they can.

The landmark Banff Spring Hotel stands closed and deserted on April 13, 2020. TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
The day he was laid off from Banff Ave Brewing Co., Mr. Gravelle bought four $50 gift cards from the local IGA, which he donated to single parents. “Sometimes when life is kicking your butt,” he says, “you need something to turn you around.”

Mr. Gravelle, who was raised by a single dad in Thunder Bay, learned this firsthand last year, after his father had a massive heart attack. He was frantically picking up dish-washing shifts and service jobs to try to earn enough to fly home.

One morning, he came into work, his “stress and depression at max capacity,” and found a card addressed to him. 

Inside, his co-workers had tucked $750 – enough to get home to Dad. “This turned the worst time in my life into the most beautiful experience I have ever encountered," Mr. Gravelle says. He vowed that day to pay it forward.

Some events break the eerie silence that has settled over the normally frenetic town.

“Maybe I’ll ring the church bells,” Heather Jordan thought on the first quiet Sunday of the pandemic. It was so popular, she started doing it every day at 1 p.m.

Each day at 1 p.m., Heather Jean Jordan plays the church bells of St. George in the Pines Anglican Church. TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL
First, she launches into a joyful peal – a loud, fast-paced series of tones. Then she plays Amazing Grace or Ode to Joy, always ending with the national anthem. The sounds carry all the way to the peak of Tunnel Mountain.

Ms. Jordan, a singer-songwriter and the pianist at St. George’s-in-the-Pines Anglican Church, doesn’t have any formal training in the chimes, “so every practice is a performance, and every performance is a practice.”

She plays by striking a set of batons with her fists – “I’m not Quasimodo up in the bell tower lunging from rope to rope.”
Ms. Jordan, who was raised on a beef and grain farm near Lake Manitoba’s southern shore, never goes over 10 minutes, waving from the belfry to the people who gather on Beaver Street below every day to listen. She has played the theme songs from Jurassic Park and The Legend of Zelda. Sometimes, it’s the Beatles – With a Little Help from My Friends or Let It Be.

The haunting sound of the bells ringing over the silent town has moved Ms. Sorensen, Mr. Geddes and his wife to tears. “It’s just so beautiful,” Mr. Geddes says.

For now, they await the pandemic’s next chapter. “It’s like a bomb hit Banff,” he says. “We have to wait till the cloud clears to see what we have left.”

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