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‘That’s the unfortunate part, we don’t have a feeling of success’: Yukoners regroup following AWG cancellation

Officials across a number of sectors in the Yukon, from government to private businesses, are trying to regroup and salvage what they can now that the news of the Arctic Winter Games’ cancellation has settled in.
Boxes of dry goods intended for use during the 2020 Arctic Winter Games sit unpacked on pallets at Yukon College. (Submitted)

Officials across a number of sectors in the Yukon, from government to private businesses, are trying to regroup and salvage what they can now that the news of the Arctic Winter Games’ cancellation has settled in.

The international sporting event, held every two years that draws hundreds of athletes from across the circumpolar north, was set to take place in Whitehorse from March 15 to March 21.

However, they were called off March 7 following a recommendation by the Yukon’s acting chief medical officer of health over concerns surrounding the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).

Moira Lassen, general manager of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games Host Society, said things felt a bit off on March 6, the day before the official cancellation.

“Personally, I felt odd at a meeting on Friday at noon — an emergency hand-sanitizer meeting because we didn’t get the order,” Lassen said, describing the fact that the meeting was even happening as “a bit strange.”

“Then you just go back to work and crack on — didn’t think about it until we were in the room the next day.”

Lassen said the staff at the host society was caught off-guard by the decision.

“I think the rug got pulled out from under them on Saturday (the day the decision was announced),” she said.

“Sunday, it was a more emotional response — either anger or upset. Now, I think people realize that we do have a task to do and we’re just doing the same thing we always had to do, just earlier and in a different way, without the benefit of the games and the elation of the success of the games and all that energy associated.

“That’s the unfortunate part,” she added. “We don’t have a feeling of success.”

Eagle-eyed social media users no doubt noticed the ads advertising bunk beds for sale on March 7, but Lassen said that was always the plan.

“That’s part of our decommissioning. The games are only one week and we had to do asset recovery and disposal,” she explained.

While a large portion of the assets would have been dealt with in any scenario, the cancellation does leave the host society with a number of extra things to account for. Items like pins, merchandise, volunteer jackets, food, welcome bags and flags would have been distributed during the games, but now will not be.

Lassen confirmed that volunteers will be receiving their jackets, and a meeting of the board of management on March 10 will determine the fate of things like merchandise and pins.

The host society confirmed that details will be released soon on when and how volunteers will be able to pick up their jackets. Volunteers will also still be able to use their accreditation to ride public transit for free throughout the week the games were scheduled, as originally planned.

Lassen said that while the games did not happen, the work of staff and volunteers was not in vain.

“For all the volunteers … all the work that they did in advance and recently in signing up is not to be discredited,” said Lassen. “We might not have the benefit of the games and all the excitement that comes with it, but we do have legacy we can pass on to people.”

The Arctic Winter Games was not officially listed on Whitehorse city council’s March 9 meeting agenda, but it was the first issue to come up with Mayor Dan Curtis addressing it ahead of any other matters.

“We are truly heartbroken by the cancellation of the 2020 Arctic Winter Games,” Curtis said.

City manager Linda Rapp said management met with staff first thing Monday morning about the cancellation, and that “everyone’s devastated.”

She didn’t have exact numbers available, but Rapp said the city’s parks department had brought in some extra staff typically hired through the summer to take on some of the extra work during the games. There were also some others set to backfill positions at the Canada Games Centre for staff who were taking on other duties related to AWG.

The city will be looking at its staffing over the next few days.

Rapp said there will be extra hands needed to do some of the decommissioning work that will be happening sooner than expected.

“There’s so many pieces to be sorted out,” she said, adding that this week, the focus will be on getting a plan in place to determine next steps.

City spokesperson Myles Dolphin said work is also underway to determine the March break schedule for the Canada Games Centre, which had been set to host a variety of AWG competitions.

Council will maintain the meeting schedule it had set for 2020, which eliminated the March 16 meeting so council members could volunteer with the games.

Yukon College, which was set to host badminton amongst other sports and take care of food services, is also in the process of “decommissioning,” director of student and infrastructure support Colleen Wirth said March 9.

Instead of gearing up, kitchen staff are now shrink-wrapping products like dried goods and paper plates ordered in for the games and putting them on pallets to be shipped back to manufacturers that will accept them (14 pallets of paper goods in total). Some teams also shipped equipment to the college; that also now needs to be sent back.

Next week is reading week at the college, Wirth said, so the games wouldn’t have impacted student schedules.

“It will be much quieter than we had anticipated, but next week will be more of a normal reading week for us as opposed to the exciting event that we were all busy volunteering for and excited about,” she said.

Meanwhile, questions have swirled in the legislative assembly about what steps the government is taking in order to take pressure off the tourism sector in light of the games’ cancellation and an announcement from Canada’s chief public health officer to refrain from boarding cruise ships.

Jeanie Dendys, minister of tourism, said on March 9 that communication is ongoing with federal counterparts.

“I spoke directly — myself — to many operators, particularly in the Carcross area,” she said.

“They indicated to me that it’s business as usual. They’re moving forward. Of course everyone is concerned about the cancellation of cruise ships, and we will work with our partners as we go forward on this particular matter.”

An internal email obtained by the News shows that the Tourism Association of the Yukon has put out a survey to its members in order to quantify possible economic impacts resulting from the virus.

In separate interviews March 10, Joe Sparling, CEO and president of Air North, and Rich Thompson, CEO of NVD, said the games’ cancellation was the first impact to business they’ve seen related to fears surrounding COVID-19.

Air North is waiving its change and cancellation fees for flights booked specifically for the games, while NVD, which owns hotels including the Best Western Gold Rush Inn and the Coast High Country Inn, is sticking to its normal policy of offering refunds for cancellations.

Sparling said more than 650 passengers had been set to travel on Air North charter flights for the games, now all cancelled, with another 400 travelling on flights set up to support the charters. Some of the people on the support flights likely weren’t travelling for the games — they might have been flying for spring break, for example — but Sparling said even if those passengers don’t cancel, Air North will still be taking a hit.

“In some cases we’ve got a flight that, for example, is going eastbound to Ottawa full one way and then it was intending to pick up a series of charter flights out of Ottawa which are not going to happen, so we end up with an airplane basically stuck in Ottawa that we’re going to have to dead-end home … Obviously we’ll try to sell some seats but we’re not going to sell too many at this late stage,” Sparling said.

He said he expects the revenue impact on Air North to be “pretty close to a million dollars,” with the net impact about half of that.

Thompson said he anticipated the financial impact on NVD as a result of hotel cancellations to be “a few hundred thousand dollars in total,” with restaurants who were expecting to be busy during the games taking a hit as well.

While “nobody likes losing a lot of money for a 10-to-12-day period,” Thompson said the hit is manageable; it will be the ripple effect, if any, of the games’ cancellation and COVID-19 on travel that would be an issue.

“What would really be a problem for us is if this persists and grows … If we find all of a sudden we’re looking at a much more significant impact over the course of time, then it would be impossible to, obviously, maintain all of our employment and so on in that situation,” he said.

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