SALT LAKE CITY — For many, Utah’s ski season ended abruptly over the weekend as the spread of COVID-19 prompted ski resorts across the state to close.

As of Tuesday, every Utah ski resort halted the majority of resort operations, at least temporarily, with scores of independently owned lodges, restaurants, rental shops and other businesses that rely on ski-tourism following suit. 

Bad news for those planning a late-March ski vacation. But even worse news for the thousands of seasonal employees working in the ski industry who are now wondering how to make ends meet. 

“This is a very surreal and difficult time for us all, particularly in the hospitality industry,” Kaitlin Eskelson, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, said during a Monday morning press conference. As Eskelson spoke, Salt Lake County officials halted all dine-in options for restaurants, taverns, bars, entertainment venues and clubs. A similar order was put in place in Summit County over the weekend.

Snowbird, Park City, Deer Valley and Solitude are paying seasonal employees for their scheduled hours through Sunday, while Alta will pay employees for the rest of March, according to resort statements and emails sent out to employees. Vail Resorts, which operates Park City Resort, is considering reopening three resorts outside of Utah — Heavenly, Breckenridge and Whistler Blackcomb.

“A lot of people are super distraught about it,” said Kyle Stranick, the head chef at the Alta Peruvian Lodge, an independently owned hotel at Alta. “They’re like, ‘Wow, I’m pretty much homeless and jobless right now.’”

A desolate Alta Ski Area is pictured on on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Utah’s ski resorts are now closed due to the spread of COVID-19. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Alta Peruvian is one of many businesses in the ski industry giving its employees, many of whom were expecting to have work until late-April, time to figure out employment and housing. Both Alta and Deer Valley are allowing live-in employees to stay until the end of the month, even though the resort is closed.

“They’re letting employees stay until the end of the month, so we’ll still feed them and all that stuff ... but no one’s getting paid,” Stranick said, noting the closure triggered a mass exodus of seasonal workers.

“It sucks, but I think it’s the right thing to do,” said Boris Yaworsky, an employee at the Goldminer’s Daughter, another independently owned lodge at Alta.

“A few days ago, we were skiing ... with a job and a place to live, and 48 hours later we’re all getting the boot,” he said.

Yaworsky and others at the Goldminer’s Daughter described a chaotic scene Monday, with workers frantically packing suitcases and booking last-minute flights home as rumors of domestic travel restrictions spread.

The Deseret News talked to over a dozen ski industry employees. Many of them work in the service or hospitality industry during the offseason, and were anxious about where to find work in the coming months.

“I usually work in the service industry,” said Yaworsky, “Obviously theres no employment there right now.”

But there is a lifeline for the growing number of people now out of work.

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“Individuals who are laid off for no fault of their own are most likely eligible for unemployment insurance,” said Kevin Burt, director of the Unemployment Division of the Department of Workforce Services. Burt said everyone, even employees working in the U.S. with visas, should apply. If someone is deemed ineligible, the agency will refer them to other support programs.

“In the end, the unemployment insurance program is supposed to be an economic stabilizer,” Burt said. “It’s a way to put money back into that economy, help stabilize and maintain the purchasing power of these individuals that are laid off.”

With the recent resort closures, Burt expects to see a surge in people applying for benefits. But he’s not concerned, saying the unemployment trust fund “is in a better place now than it was in 2007.”

“We’ve had such a good economic run in the state of Utah, our trust fund is incredibly solvent,” Burt said. “Utah is designed to be able to weather a pretty significant impact or significant recession.”

A few diehard snowboarders hiked up a hill at Brighton to get in a few more runs despite the resort being closed on Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Utah’s ski resorts are now closed due to the spread of COVID-19. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
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