BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. — His skis nearby, John Gabin lounged at a picnic table, gazing up toward the steep slopes carpeted with snow. His 4-year-old son sprawled on his outstretched legs.
"It's a getaway from L.A., the city, you know?" said Gabin, 46, of North Hollywood, who rented a house in Big Bear Lake with his wife, their two children and a friend for several days.
He spent the sunny midweek morning in January at Snow Summit Resort teaching his children to ski, a pastime he's carried on since his days as a child living in France. Now, it's a means to escape the ongoing surge of coronavirus cases as the omicron variant spreads rapidly throughout the dense neighborhoods of Los Angeles.
"Since Christmas, it's been positive, negative, contact, no contact," he said. "It's crazy. You can't get tested anywhere. It's a lot of stress. That's why we have to get away."
Mountain resort areas like Big Bear have long been vacation or day-trip destinations for Southern Californians, but during the pandemic and an early winter of healthy snowfall, the number of visitors has spiked, as people seek activities that still allow for social distancing and other safety measures to avoid infection, officials and businesses owners said.
Yet while the influx of visitors bodes well for the local economy, it has strained the Bear Valley's infrastructure and workforce. Throughout this winter season and last, residents, workers and business owners in Big Bear have dealt with increased exposure to the coronavirus, understaffing, shortages of essential services, housing shortages, traffic and parking congestion, and litter.
"We are experiencing, in a microeconomic sense, the problems that everyone else in the whole country is experiencing," said Ellen Clarke, executive director of the Big Bear Chamber of Commerce. "Only in our small community, we have a very little population, and it hurts — it hurts a lot."
Clarke said staffing issues have hit small businesses with 10 or fewer employees the hardest.
Brody Barr, who works at a ski and snowboard rental shop along Big Bear Lake's main thoroughfare, said the increased crowds are a welcome sight, but with a shortage of staff, he and other employees have had to work overtime throughout the holidays. He said many of the store's customers are first-time skiers or snowboarders who picked up the sport during the pandemic. Many had never set foot on the mountain before.
The influx was especially difficult this year since workers were still reeling from the COVID-19-related death of the shop's longtime owner in December, Barr said.