Alpine Breeding Grounds Austrian Ski Resort Flings Coronavirus Around Europe

Tourists from around Europe became infected with the coronavirus in Austria's Paznaun Valley. Despite mounting evidence, the lifts and bars stayed open until just a few days ago.
By Walter Mayr in Vienna
The now-shuttered après-ski bar Kitzloch in Ischgl: "Greed and Failure"

The now-shuttered après-ski bar Kitzloch in Ischgl: "Greed and Failure"


One thing, at least, has now become clear. Eros Ramazzotti can skip his planned trip to Paznaun Valley in the Tyrol region of Austria. The Italian popstar had been booked for Top of the Mountain Closing, the celebration marking the end of the ski season on May 2, 2020, at Idalp, located at an altitude of 2,320 meters (7,610 feet) - high above the winter sports hotspot of Ischgl.

The extravaganza has been cancelled, as was the rest of the season on Friday in response to the coronavirus outbreak – seven weeks earlier than originally planned. On the other hand, the closure came much later than it should have for hundreds of guests from Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Germany . As has become clear, a huge number of skiers and other tourists became infected with the virus in Ischgl and brought the illness back to their home countries.

"Essentially, it is a catastrophe for Ischgl," Werner Kurz, who has been mayor of the Alpine town for the last 10 years, said over the phone. Ischgl has since been sealed off. "But we aren't yet talking about the economic consequences. We will overcome that, just as we have been able to overcome flooding and avalanches in the past."

Around 1,000 men and women working in the tourism industry, along with at least two dozen Austrian tourists, are now stuck in the winter sports town due to the quarantine that has been imposed, says Kurz. He adds that he doesn’t know exactly how many Austrians in Ischgl are currently infected.

Partying at the "Champagne Shack"

The town of Ischgl only has a permanent population of 1,600, but it is proud of the some 1 million overnight stays each year and it produces several million cubic meters of artificial snow annually so that visitors from Europe's north can strap on their skis from November to May. And once they finish skiing in the afternoon, guests can join the party in establishments like the Kuhstall, the Schatzi Bar or the "Champagne Shack."

But it was a visit to the après-ski bar Kitzloch not far from the valley station in Ischgl that proved fateful for many partygoers. A bartender there is thought to have been infected with coronavirus and responsible for passing the disease on to numerous tourists, particularly from Scandinavia and Germany .

More than half of all Norwegians who have tested positive and more than a third of infected Danes say they caught the virus in Austria. In northern Germany, too, the number of those testing positive following their stay in Ischgl is on the rise. In addition, authorities in Ostalbkreis district, just east of Stuttgart, are trying to track down those who were bused to Ischgl for a day of skiing in late February and early March.

For the entire sector in the Austrian Alps, the news coming out of Ischgl poses a serious threat to their business model. "Greed and Failure in Tyrol," was the headline in the Vienna-based daily Der Standard, noting that chairlifts and gondolas continued normal operations until as recently as Sunday – even in parts of the Paznaun Valley, which had already been sealed off because of the virus.

"We Implemented All Regulations"

Lift operators and hoteliers, the paper claimed, wanted to secure the last bit of revenues, despite the health dangers to citizens and guests. Tyrol Governor Günther Platter and other regional leaders vehemently reject such accusations. Kurz, the mayor of Ischgl, says: "We implemented all regulations in a timely manner."

Is that true? How, then, can it be possible that, despite authorities in Iceland declaring the Ischgl ski resort a danger zone as early as March 5 because of the number of sick people returning from the area, the skiing, partying and flirting was allowed to continue in the valley for more than another week? How is it possible that in Norway, positive coronavirus tests from people returning from Paznaun Valley began rolling in on March 7, yet health authorities in Tyrol announced a day later that "from a medical point of view, it is rather unlikely" that guests of the Kitzloch bar could have become infected? Another two days passed before the place was shut down.

Vacationers in Ischgl: Excesses of the modern leisure-time industry

Vacationers in Ischgl: Excesses of the modern leisure-time industry

Foto: Felix Hörhager/ picture alliance / dpa

For the moment, it is impossible to predict what the consequences of the manifest failings in Paznaun Valley might be. An anesthesiologist from the university clinic in Salzburg, who was on vacation in Ischgl, seems to have become infected there. The result is that more than 100 people he has had contact with, including doctors, nurses and crewmembers from a rescue helicopter are now temporarily unavailable for deployment in the fight against the coronavirus. The doctor's partner, meanwhile, has also been infected with the virus. She works as a nurse at the premature infant station and had contact with newborns.

Seeking Out Breeding Grounds

On Sunday, a bar in the Upper Austrian known as the Blauer Affe (Blue Monkey) hosted a last fling, inviting guests for an "apocalypse beer" or for a Corona with a shot of tequila for just 6 euros. But the bad news from the Tyrol ski resorts just kept coming. A barkeeper in Sölden, a tourist hotspot in the picturesque valley of Ötztal, tested positive for the coronavirus. Some 80 employees of the hotel in question are now reportedly under quarantine.

Indeed, it almost seems as though the coronavirus is seeking out breeding grounds where the excesses of the modern, globalized leisure-time industry are most apparent. In Ischgl's Kitzloch bar and in other après-ski watering holes, guests from around the world are crammed so closely together in the evenings that the service personnel use whistles to alert the patrons as they shove their way through the masses. In those circumstances, it's hardly surprising that a single bar employee could infect 24 people.

More amazing is that the party in Ischgl didn't stop until Friday. It seems likely that those responsible will ultimately have to answer before a court of law.

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