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In the closing throes of an ‘annus horribilis’, Dan describes the factors that influenced every agonising decision of 2020 and plans for 2021…

Dan BC, adopting a new Safety Protocol

Dan, Perris was one of the first DZs to close, what led to that decision?

What lead to closing was mild panic (laughs) .. we were really set up for 2020 being the busiest year Skydive Perris had ever seen.  When we first heard that Covid may be serious Pat and Mel [Conatser], Andy Witcomb and I were in a meeting discussing how we could deal with all the business we had on the schedule. Sport jumping, school jumping, Patrick’s 150-way, P3 events, the110-way star, just making sure we had enough space and aircraft and everything else.  Hearing about Covid it was like, yeah, yeah, yeah, well let me know when it’s important .. then a week later it was suddenly very important, the whole world was panicking…  .and without having any real information.

As skydivers risk management is what we do. Each one of us individually on every jump… as event organisers…  as dropzones… we are all constantly managing risk, based on information. At the beginning there was very little information on Covid other than there is this really bad virus and we’re not sure how people get it so, basically, everybody hide at home.  

We thought about the international community we have, the close relationships, we all hug each other, we are the absolute opposite of social distancing! It sounded bad, and we figured we’d better shut down until we could figure it out.  Pretty well right after that the government shut down the rest of society.

Door open and masked up
Image by Craig O’Brien

How did you come to the call to open again?

We decided to reopen when we had done all the research we could and had a better understanding of what it takes to keep people safe. We listened to the scientists and doctors who have been trying to figure this out. we are very well equipped in skydiving, we have experts in everything. We spoke to medical professionals who are skydivers, so they also understand what we do and how we do it. Dr Bob Domeier, Fess Edwards, Anne Halliwell and others, very experienced jumpers.

So, we got our Covid protocol sorted out. We built handwashing stations, disinfectant areas everywhere, extra cleaning, nuking all the planes first thing in the morning, sanitising everyone’s hands when boarding, everybody had to wear masks, all the time – indoors, outdoors, in the plane, everywhere. We started taking everyone’s temperatures when they arrived on the DZ. Keeping the door open in the aeroplane.

Covid safety is pretty much like any other safety consideration in skydiving.  You evaluate the facts and make your own judgement. There is a point with winds when they haven’t reached the official limit but some people make a decision to stop jumping before the dz makes the call to shut down. Landing areas can be too tight for some people but fine for others. It’s a personal call. We figured we could make the drop zone as safe as possible so people could make their own choice whether to come and jump.

The beautiful thing about our community is, we want to include everyone. We’ve got an incredible range in our family, from 18-year-old swoopers on tiny canopies to 80-year-olds on 300 square foot parachutes… (laughs) … taking up the whole landing area, but that’s ok because they are 80 and they’re still here and skydiving so they can do whatever the hell they want! We wanted to make sure that people who are more immune-compromised, or older, could feel comfortable coming to the dz.

How has it worked for Skydive Perris?

We have no report of any transmission of the virus here.  We are doing contact tracing – we’ve had a few instances of people reporting later that they have the virus and this information has been passed on to those they were in contact with but we have had zero known incidences of the virus transmitted at the dropzone.

Fall Fling at Skydive Perris
Photo by Craig O’Brien

Skydive Perris and other dropzones have been criticised for running events, what do you think about that?

Everyone’s gotta make their own call. If are surrounded every day by family you know are compromised, you’re going to draw the line in one place. If you’re 20 years old and not around vulnerable people you will likely make different decisions.  I have yet to see any kind of scientific report that spoke against the basic protocol of masks, social distancing and washing hands, if you do these things you’ve got it more or less covered. We just went to the Not-Nationals event at Arizona. One person tested positive afterwards and most likely he had the virus when he showed up but it was not transmitted to anyone else at the event, because we were following sound protocols.

Skydivers have very strong opinions about everything we can imagine. When we’re on the dz it doesn’t matter, we’re a team and we work together with a goal of keeping it safe and making a fun environment. Rarely is there any crap.  But this year it started, people were so opinionated, and the bummer was, how many people were judging everyone else. If you were opening a drop zone people ripped you, if you closed they were ripping you, if you had masks they were ripping you, if you didn’t have masks they were ripping you. Every drop zone is doing their best to keep everyone safe and jumpers can choose where they want to go. It should never have become hostile. At times it did bug me because as skydivers we should be above that kind of crap.

We agreed completely at Skydive Perris, if we can’t keep people safe, we’re not doing it. But if we can keep people safe, we’re staying open. Right now, they are getting very strict in California with lots of places closing down but we figure we can keep going safely. I have complete support for DZs that made different decisions because I know they did that with safety in mind.

Image by Dennis Sattler

How did the pandemic affect your events? Are you confident they will go ahead?

All the 2020 events were moved to 2021 and we are hopeful. The vaccines are coming out now. Everyone knows we are scheduling optimistically. We hope it works out but of course it may not. It’s the international travel that could be the problem. We may have to do smaller events with just US participants.

Isn’t a big-way event, with people travelling from all over the world on airlines, the worst possible Coronavirus transmission scenario?

One thing we cannot tell is whether someone has Covid, other than testing everyone who arrives on the dz. There are many times when people don’t know they have it, they feel fine and they don’t even have any symptoms. There is nothing we can do to be certain people don’t have it.  What we can do is all the things we are doing to make sure it is very difficult for it to be passed on. Even if people have it, if we do everything we are doing it does not get transmitted easily. If you’ve got 50 people singing and dancing and screaming in a bar, no masks on and right in each other’s faces, well we love that but the virus gets transmitted really quickly. I don’t wanna act like that’s a bad thing, it’s just not a good thing right now 

When we did the mini Power Play and Fall Fling, I texted the jumps to everyone beforehand to minimise dirtdive time. We were debriefing 30 in a room big enough for 80, with the doors open and the aircon on. Nobody came to the room till I called. Everyone with masks, no eating in debriefs. You have to do all these things but if we do them meticulously, we should be good. Having the events restructured to be careful with Covid we should be ok. It would be insane to run them like we did before.  I would love nothing more than to have 500 people dancing in the bomb shelter or the world sequential dirtdive ‘hands-in’ with everyone sharing the love like it used to be, but we just can’t do that right now.

Wearing masks and distancing in debriefs

How about sharing an O2 system, is that a problem with transmitting Covid?  

We don’t share hoses, everyone has their own. There is nothing that goes into the system, only oxygen that comes out. Almost all the jumpers have their visors closed. We have been doing this at events recently, it’s all good.

How about financially, these extra measures must add a cost?

We have been pretty much just trying to eat up the extra. It’s a hard enough time for everyone dealing with this never mind financially as well.  At the end of the day everything you do on a DZ to add safety has a cost.

How do you see the future of the sport, with lots of DZs having to close, lost revenue, can the industry recover financially? 

I think the sport will make a full comeback. Particular dzs, manufacturers, shops may not make it.  Which is the case for almost every area in the world right now.  But overall, we will come out ok.  When we reopened, people were begging to go skydiving. We actually couldn’t take everyone on because we didn’t have the staff. The Power Play people were the happiest group of skydivers I have ever seen. People have so much passion for the sport.

How have you seen the skydiving community respond to lockdown?

It did give us a chance to communicate in new ways.  As skydivers we get together as often as we can and share information.  Now we haven’t been able to do that we’ve been utilising online media much better than before. USPA asked me to do a safety day video in February… then right then we closed.  The video was seen by over 10,000 people – some who were not jumping or could not get out to DZs.  There were lots of fantastic webinars that shared information, and kept the community in touch.

‘Fall Fling’ at Perris 2020 – postponed from Spring Fling and downsized
Image by Craig O’Brien

How important do you think it is to the skydiving community to reconnect?

It’s huge. One thing that we love about skydiving that is pretty unique – there is easy communication and access of people all the way from first time jumpers to AFF students, instructors, coaches, DZOs, world champions, cameraflyers – we all communicate. It’s such a unique thing we do that we all remember what it was like being students and baby jumpers. It’s really cool because the new jumpers look up and can’t imagine being where we are – but we really remember what it was like to be there, so we have the connection… the whole circle of life!

What do you think about 2021?

I honestly think everyone just keep being careful. I don’t think we have to hide in our homes entirely but we can’t do what we have always done. We are not going to be in this Covid shit-hole forever. I think we are going to end 2021 way better than we started off.  Let’s just respect each other, trust each other and trust that everyone is trying to do the right thing.  

Covid Protocol

This Skydive Perris video below takes a light-hearted look at Coronavirus safety measures, and you can check the detailed list on the Skydive Perris website.

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Lesley has been in love with skydiving for 35 years. She is a multiple world and national record holder and a coach on 20 successful record events worldwide. She has over 100 competition medals spanning more than 25 years and has been on the British 8-way National team at World events. She started Skydive Mag to spread knowledge, information and passion about our amazing sport.
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