About 35 workers would usually be trickling into Mr Grimus’ hotel – not least because a bumper snow season, possibly the best in a decade, awaits Victoria.
But with no indication on the fate of Victoria’s social restrictions beyond May 11, Mr Grimus can only be hopeful – nothing more – that some form of ski season will be allowed.
Victoria’s ski industry, led by the Mount Buller, Falls Creek and Mount Hotham resorts, contributes almost $800 million annually to local economies, according to a 2017 government report. About 8000 seasonal jobs are created every year.
South Australia marked its eighth consecutive day with no new COVID-19 cases on Friday by announcing a loosening of its lockdown, including allowing travel to regional towns.
Yet in Victoria, which recorded 16 cases since Monday, ski towns and businesses already beleaguered by a bushfire-ravaged summer so far know nothing about when restrictions might be eased.
Near Mansfield at the foot of Mount Buller, Mandy Aistrope, owner of a motel, pub and ski hybrid called the Merrijig Motor Inn, muses on the “funny old business” of snow. Especially this year.
In January, as bushfires raged through Victoria’s alpine region, Ms Aistrope’s motel was crammed with the eerie energy of evacuated families from nearby towns.
On Friday, when carloads of excitable children should have been hopping out for a hot chocolate while their parents rented chains and toboggans, Merrijig was bare.
About two-thirds of the takings for Ms Aistrope’s motor inn come in snow season. So what if it doesn’t happen this year?
“It could mean if we survive or not, really.”
That post-bushfires tipping point is plaguing much of the region, says Alpine Shire mayor Peter Roper.
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Towns such as Bright, Omeo and Myrtleford near Mount Hotham, plus Mansfield, have increasingly shaped themselves into summer as well as winter destinations, Cr Roper says, attracting mountain bikers, walkers and nature enthusiasts.
“At the end of January we calculated our towns had lost $90 million on tourism,” he said. “To calculate the numbers now after COVID-19 would be terrifying.”
A disrupted summer meant many Alpine towns lost 50 per cent of their yearly business. Cr Roper admits he is worried about the impact if ski season is cancelled.
He has no indication on how the season might unfold, but notes the difficulties specific to ski resorts.
How do you maintain social distancing of 1.5 metres on ski lifts? How will enough ski workers, normally sleeping in tight-fit rooms of bunk beds, fill the resorts? Would it work without international and interstate visitors, who make up about 16 per cent of Victoria’s 762,000 resort visitors every year?
“These businesses are resilient, they’ll do their best to be ready, even if it’s not until July or August,” he says.
Denis Payton, who owns the Big4 Caravan Park in Bright, near Mount Hotham, says he’s received an uptick in calls from optimistic Victorians over the last week.
“We’re a business that’s really, really dependent on the ski season,” he says.
“I’ve been speaking to a lot of businesses in the area and they’ve been upgrading, making their places better. There’s a lot of energy in the town, it’s vibrant. We’re just hoping for the sign-off from the government.”
The Victorian government has been liaising with ski resorts, who are tight-lipped on how they expect the season to pan out. Premier Daniel Andrews on Friday said it was possible the skiing industry would receive government funding support in the future, depending on their hardship.
Aaron Place, who manages the Ski Chute 4 hire shop in Mansfield, normally employs 25 mostly young locals every ski season, who are now on tenterhooks.
“There’s no overseas travel, many people probably won’t have the money to come skiing,” he says. “I think everyone is aware, no matter what, it will be a pretty average season.”
On Mount Buller, Mr Grimus, 29, grew up as one of six or seven kids who took the bus down to Mansfield every day. Speak about the variability of snow as much as you like, he says, nothing has prepared the mountain for a season lead-in like this.
“If we don’t get a winter it will be tough for businesses, the smaller ones especially. We’ve got the benefit of being a small community that looks after each other. If people do get in trouble we’ll come together.”
Michael is a reporter for The Age.