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Local leaders say the winter ski season in Big Sky was a success despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hordes of tourists flock to Big Sky in the winter, bringing with them business that fuels the town’s economy. This year, though, tourists also had the potential to bring with them COVID-19.

Recognizing how important the winter season is to Big Sky’s economy, organizations established a surveillance testing program that has run nearly 55,000 tests from the end of November through mid-April.

“We have a large volume of tourism-driven economy in the community here and we wanted to make sure we were able to make that economy open through the winter season,” said Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Tax organization, which was involved in the surveillance testing program.

According to data from Big Sky Relief, a nonprofit created to respond to the pandemic, the program caught 1,004 positive tests since Nov. 30, 2020.

The rate of positive results to tests done during the season is 1.8%, significantly lower than Gallatin County’s positivity rate, which had a seven-day rolling average this past week of 11.6%.

Bierschwale said they are pleased with how the winter panned out.

The general manager for Big Sky Resort, whose season ends on Sunday, said in an email that surveillance testing was a key part of keeping the resort open.

“Our goal has always been to safely operate for a full season of skiing, and to have accomplished that is certainly no small feat,” wrote General Manager Troy Nedved.

The pandemic didn’t slow tourism much.

Collections from the town’s resort tax — which is a sales tax on certain items — were only slightly down this winter from the 2019-2020 season, Bierschwale said.

“The good thing about the primary recreation that ... people come to Big Sky for is it’s all skiing on some of the largest skiable acres in the United States,” Bierschwale said. “Having the ability to be able to spread out was something that was actually a benefit for us here when it comes to outdoor recreation.”

Big Sky also saw more people who own second homes stay in town for longer than normal, Bierschwale said.

The surveillance testing program was a partnership between Big Sky Relief, Bozeman Health and health departments in Gallatin and Madison counties.

Big Sky Relief contracted with a private company to create an on-site lab, which was able to return testing results within a day or two.

Bozeman Health provided oversight and contact tracers, said Birgen Knoff, system director of clinical practice.

“Because we have the on-site lab we had very quick isolation of any folks that had positive results come back,” Knoff said. “Then the ability for us to contact trace quickly allowed us to really quarantine those close contact exposures that we were able to identify.”

The program will run into the summer, Knoff said, with its end expected to be dictated by vaccination rates.

Bozeman Health is also helping administer vaccines in Big Sky, hosting mass vaccination events on weekends and smaller clinics during the week.

The transient nature of Big Sky’s residents is complicating those efforts somewhat, Knoff said, as the town’s population tends to fluctuate with the opening and closing of the ski resorts.

Some people are coming to Bozeman Health just looking for second doses, having gotten their first dose somewhere else.

Knoff said because they are allocated second doses commensurate to the number of first doses they’ve administered, fitting those people in is difficult.

“It is challenging to be able to host vaccination events, and be sure that we’re hitting a time where we’re going to have a very captive audience and be able to get as many vaccines in arms as we can,” Knoff said.

Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said he appreciates that the program didn’t take away from testing capacity in the county at large.

The program provides some valuable insight, Kelley said.

“I think it demonstrated the power of a really strong surveillance testing system,” Kelley said. “It’s expensive though, I mean they spent a lot of money on that. I think it can be a lesson learned for the state (and) for the nation about how we build our capacity to deal with this in the future.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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