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Closed Slopes and Flat Curves: Community Life and the Mantra of Our Time

As the coronavirus impacts so much of everyday life, including our shared coping strategies, many have united around a guiding principle that reminds us that currently, solidarity comes from solitude

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Friday morning, my 4-year-old son attended his weekly ski school class at a local California mountain, where he proudly formed his tiny skis into pizza pies and french fries, rode “the big chairlift,” and, according to his instructor, simply went ahead and dropped trou al fresco when he felt the need to pee. Less than 24 hours later, I spent my Saturday mostly ignoring him so that I could better focus on what felt like a genuinely urgent, if niche mission: tweeting incessantly at Squaw Valley resort and all its nearby competitors to close the slopes, stat.

As my kids played with their Transformers, their mother transformed into a textbook Twitter reply guy, scowling at the screen, using words like “irresponsible,” and tagging both the California governor and the county in my repeated screeds. Every now and then I took a breather to switch browser tabs so I could write comments like “perfectly stated! #flattenthecurve” on various like-minded Facebook posts. My posture was atrocious, but my mind felt clear. To fight the pandemic spread of the coronavirus, the state of California had decided earlier in the week to ban all gatherings of more than 250. (Since then, the state has escalated this to all gatherings, period.) No conferences, no concerts. It seemed absurd to me that the bustling local ski resorts would be exempt from this new rule.

How had I gone from zipping up my child’s snow pants one day earlier to feeling quite certain that no one else should be out there doing the same? How had I morphed so quickly from convincing myself that skiing was the perfect activity in the age of social distancing, with its gloves and goggles and fresh air, to feeling visceral horror at the thought of happy patrons lined up for the lifts? Where I live, in the Sierra Nevada up in northeast-ish California, the ski and tourism industries drive the fortunes of our community, and shutting them down would cause a widespread, world-rocking hit to the entire region. My cautiousness felt callous and I knew my passion might look like panic.

These feelings surfaced not in spite of my own decision to send my kid for one last lesson—the way I saw it then, he’d already been at preschool all last week until it finally closed, so what difference would a morning of ski school make?—but precisely because of it. No offense to myself, but it was a glaring public health risk to put the choice in my hands.

One of the most pernicious aspects of this current pandemic is how efficiently the pathogen behind it undermines our usual coping strategies. In times of uncertainty and fear, we are programmed to come together, to hug, to cry into shoulders, to hold hands, to link arms and stand side-by-side and sing “We Are the World,” to bone, to get hammered, to go to the gym and sweat it out, to support local businesses, and to bring the grandkids on the plane to visit Nana and Pop. None of this applies anymore; it is in fact directly antagonistic to our shared survival. And so, like so many other people over the past week, I’ve become increasingly (even exponentially) motivated by one guiding mantra: flatten the curve, a principle that reminds us that for now, the solidarity is in the solitude.

Originally published by the CDC, the chart that inspired “flatten the curve” has lately become ubiquitous thanks to a message that is straightforward and vital. Flatten the curve doesn’t so much argue with the type of people who roll their eyes about the risks of the novel coronavirus and say things like “Well, everyone’s going to get it sooner or later anyway”—it agrees with them, and that is its entire point. Flatten the curve acknowledges that, yes, a vast number of people will become infected with this new pathogen no matter what. But it gives us a collective job: to make sure that this spread of infection happens as slowly as possible so that hospitals and healthcare professionals don’t become overrun and overwhelmed.

To me, flatten the curve looks like the local mountains: One line tracing a more gradual peak that is a challenging but achievable slog; the other climbing abruptly past the limits of safety, the snow on top of it poised to collapse in an avalanche. Flatten the curve provides purpose and carries context; it has generated some encouraging early results, and it feels like it could qualify as the most influential chart of all time.

But is it? Over the weekend, it wasn’t just the picture of the crowded, enclosed lift at Squaw Valley that gave me chills; all over the country, images proliferated of people gathering and eating and making merry and transmitting rugged microscopic germs. A New York Times reporter uploaded pictures of people out at city restaurants and in ballroom dancing studios. (She later deleted a tweet that suggested, via a heart and an apple emoji, that she found this endearing.) Cities around the U.S. had cancelled their various planned St. Patrick’s Day parades by the end of last week, but on Saturday morning festive green-shirted folks still queued instead of quarantined, lining up at 8 a.m. to pack pubs (and even underventilated temporary beer tents!) for the occasion. Nashville was hoppin’. The governor of Oklahoma posted a selfie with his sons at a crowded brewery in OKC, attaching the hashtag #OklaProud, as if the virus cared.

Snow fell in big linen sheets outside the window on Saturday as I argued with a stranger from Reno on Twitter about how ski gloves actually aren’t protective so much as they are straight-up vectors: People wipe their runny noses on them without even noticing they’re doing it, and then back at the lodge they toss ’em on the lunch table, and when they get up to leave there is already someone hovering over them with a tray, eager to drop their napkin right at that spot. This was the first storm we’d had since January, but it was an absolute doozy, with upward of 5 feet expected over the course of several days. I had been looking forward to all the snow for the better part of a week. The problem was that everyone else had been, too.

A local friend told me that all the Airbnbs in her neighborhood were occupied and lively. Bay Area schools had just announced on Thursday night that they’d close the following week, like so many others, and so what better place to get away and hunker down than the Lake Tahoe woods? Cameras showed I-80 from San Francisco and Sacramento moving at a crawl, everyone stuck in the traffic that they were creating. (On the far coast, New Yorkers had a similar idea, ensconcing themselves in the Hamptons.)

Ski resorts across the U.S. remained open and boasted special out-of-abundance-of-cautionary measures for the surging weekend crowd. Jackson Hole closed its famous red tram but left its open-air lifts operational. A day after confirming that several employees were quarantined and one was symptomatic, Arapahoe Basin in Colorado encouraged skiers to ride lifts only with friends and family to whom they had already been exposed and reduced lodge seating by 50 percent. The mountain’s Twitter account also promised: “The East Wall is in prime shape for shredding.” Never mind that in Summit County, Colorado, visiting skiers had brought growing pockets of confirmed cases.

Many people on my local Facebook group wrote, in knowing tones, that the resorts remaining open was no big deal. Social distancing was inherent to the activity, they argued; I saw multiple people pointing out that the length of people’s skis would keep them sufficiently separated in the lift lines. But having closely watched the NBA, the NHL, and countless other organizations go through this same trajectory over the course of the preceding week—the initial defiance; the first few impotent but well-meaning protective measures like “daily disinfection of buses”; the dawning realizations that this can’t actually work—I felt I knew what was coming, in the same way that we’ve started to look to Italy to understand what could be next in the U.S. When a skier on the scene uploaded to Twitter a photo of people crammed into an enclosed Squaw Valley funitel, I didn’t feel the usual FOMO. I felt frantic.

When I first moved to this town in 2014, it was in the midst of a multiyear acute drought. The rivers slowed to trickles; big white flakes of ash the size of my palm landed on the back deck during a not-even-that-nearby September fire. I began to hate the sight of almond milk and active sprinkler systems; when The Big Short came out in late 2015 and the eccentric genius investor’s latest prediction was revealed to be a water crisis, I was rattled but not surprised. When I went back to visit family in New Jersey, where the water was bountiful and landscaping trucks dotted every curbside, the beautiful sight of the green, thick lawns felt grotesque.

Similarly, images that once seemed ordinary or mundane now scan as off-putting, even threatening. I saw a tweet that jokingly envisioned New Yorkers sitting on their fire escapes and shouting “I’m flattenin’ the curve ’ere!” but that’s actually what did happen: In Brooklyn, self-quarantined people jeered out their windows at those walking around down on the sidewalk, yelling: “Flatten the curve! Go home!” It was just a week ago that California banned those 250-person gatherings; now most municipalities are advising people against getting together with even one friend.

The ski resorts’ stubborn refusal to close ultimately lasted just that one Saturday: That afternoon, the conglomerate Vail Resorts, which owns dozens of mountains across North America and worldwide, announced that everything was being shut down. Other mountains, Squaw Valley included, followed suit, finally moving toward flattening the curve by closing its iconic steeps. “It is with a profound sense of pain and grim responsibility that I take the agonizing action that this moment demands,” said Colorado Governor Jared Polis in an executive order shuttering all of his state’s resorts on Saturday afternoon, adding that he and his family had planned to ski over spring break. On Wednesday, San Miguel county, home to the resort Telluride that had remained open until Polis’s order, announced that everyone in the county would receive COVID-19 testing through a public-private partnership, as statewide testing numbers continue their glacial pace.

In the past day or so on social media, I’ve noticed that the newly arresting images aren’t of giant crowds but of locations conspicuously devoid of them, from Lombard Street in San Francisco to that one super-grammable cobblestoned Brooklyn lane. The Oklahoma governor who bragged about being out and about recently declared a state of emergency. My son’s preschool is now closed indefinitely, and his final ski lesson is cancelled. But there’s still work to do and curves to flatten: As recently as Tuesday, crowds were packing beaches in Florida. And in New Hampshire, where Governor Chris Sununu closed nonessential businesses, a few ski mountains doggedly remained open, like Waterville Valley (owned by Sununu’s family) and Cannon Mountain (owned by the state). “Don’t forget to wear green tomorrow,” said the Waterville Valley Twitter on Monday. “Come up and celebrate St. Patrick’s Day with us - $17 lift tickets for all ages available at the ticket window!”

The mountain ultimately did close on Wednesday, blaming “an environment that has incited people to act irresponsibly to the point of becoming abusive and threatening to our staff,” another grim ending in this unfolding saga. But we can still make forward progress together even as things feel like they’re going downhill. From mountain communities to beach towns, blocks of brownstones to downtown breweries, we can find shared purpose in staying apart. And the slower we go, the more momentum we’ll build.