Chronicle of Failure A Corona Hotspot in the Alps Spread Virus Across Europe

The Austrian winter-sports mecca of Ischgl is well known for its parties. But after helping spread the virus across Europe, the town's reputation is changing to one of incompetence and greed.
Ischgl in Austria is a paradise for skiers. This winter, it became a major coronavirus hotspot.

Ischgl in Austria is a paradise for skiers. This winter, it became a major coronavirus hotspot.

Foto: MiS / IMAGO

By Jürgen Dahlkamp, Hauke Goos, Roman Höfner, Felix Hutt, Gunther Latsch, Timo Lehmann, Walter Mayr, Max Polonyi and Jonathan Stock

The Alpine village of Ischgl, located in Paznaun Valley in the Austrian province of Tyrol, sits at an altitude of 1,377 meters (4,517 feet). It is home to a parish church, a funerary chapel, around 1,600 permanent residents and 11,800 tourist beds. It also has 239 kilometers of ski runs, 1,000 snow cannons and 45 lifts. There is a disco called the Kuhstall and an après-ski bar known as Kitzloch. In Ischgl, guests can ski during the day and then party through the night, drinking Jägermeister and Red Bull. Ischgl has grown into a travel brand to rival Ibiza or Oktoberfest, with millions of tourists pouring into town each year. They arrive from Dublin, Reykjavik, Copenhagen and Helsinki, and the town is also popular among Germans. The tourism industry in the valley generates annual revenues of 250 million euros.

The huge numbers of tourists in town have changed Ischgl in recent years. More recently, though, it is Ischgl that has changed the world. In just 14 days, starting on the last day of February, the Austrian village developed into Ground Zero of the European coronavirus epidemic.

How that was able to happen is revealed in confidential documents as well as interviews with those in positions of responsibility from Ischgl to Iceland. In addition, we also spoke with tourists who gave us their accounts of time recently spent in the mountain village.

Saturday, February 29

Ryanair Flight FR2412 is sitting on the runway at the airport in Dublin waiting to be cleared for takeoff on their flight to Memmingen in Germany. On board are John Cormack and four of his friends, all of them excited about their annual mancation. Cormack is from Cork and his friends are all from other towns in southwestern Ireland. From Memmingen, they plan to drive onward to Ischgl in a rental car.

Cormack is 56 years old and has four grown sons. He learned to ski in the early 1990s, and this will be his sixth trip to Ischgl. Why does he like the Tyrolean village? "There's sure to be snow, there is a huge selection of runs and the après-ski scene is terrific."

As the Ryanair flight takes off, there isn't a single known case of novel coronavirus in the entire country of Ireland. Austria has reported just five cases, with two of them in Tyrol, and Germany has 57 confirmed infections. Denmark has just two known infections, Sweden 12 and Norway six. In Iceland, the first case had been confirmed just a day before - a tourist returning from Italy.

When Cormack and his friends reach Ischgl, they check in to their hotel and then head for Nikis Stadl, one of the bars on Dorfstrasse, Ischgl's party hotspot. Après-ski libations begin flowing here every afternoon at 3 p.m., with many people coming straight from the ski slopes. Most of them have already started drinking in the restaurants on the mountain.

Cormack and his buddies push their way through the crowds to the bar. It is packed and loud. The DJ is playing "Hey, wir woll'n die Eisbärn sehn" by the German band Puhdys, and even though the lyrics are in German, Cormack has heard the song so many times that he can sing along. Ischgl, he says, is an "honest deal." You know what you're going to get.

On this same Saturday, Icelandair Flight FI533 from Munich lands at Keflavík Airport, just outside of Reykjavik. Among the passengers are Icelandic tourists who were just skiing in Ischgl. Ever since it became known that a tourist had brought back novel coronavirus from Italy, the country of Iceland has been on high alert. An uncontrolled epidemic could have catastrophic consequences for the Atlantic island nation.

Partying in Ischgl: "An honest deal."

Partying in Ischgl: "An honest deal."


Following the plane's arrival, one of those coming from Ischgl reports experiencing symptoms associated with coronavirus. He is tested and asked to quarantine himself before officials then use the passenger list to identify those who were sitting near him on the plane. They, too, are tested and told to stay at home.

The German news agency dpa runs a story on this Saturday headlined: "Agencies Around the World Are Preparing." The Austrian newspaper Kronen Zeitung runs the headline: "Corona Alarm: Four Kindergarten Children Infected."

Sunday, March 1

Another airplane from Munich lands in Iceland and again, tourists from Ischgl are among the passengers. And again, some of them are tested. Now, Iceland has three confirmed coronavirus cases, and all of them were recently vacationing in ski areas in the Italian Alps.

Torolfur Gudnason, Iceland's leading epidemiologist, now believes that Austria could also be a virus hotspot.

Gudnason is a 66-year-old pediatrician and infectologist who loves football and plays bass guitar in a band. When the first reports of a novel coronavirus began coming out of China in early January, it became his job to ensure that the pathogen did not spread in Iceland. Gudnason holds a press conference in Iceland every day, broadcast live on television.

To ensure that all countries belonging to the European Union and, in Iceland's case, the European Economic Area are kept informed about the spread of contagious diseases, the Early Warning and Response System (EWRS) was established in 1998. Gudnason sends information on the coronavirus cases in Iceland to his European counterparts through that system.

Meanwhile, the American broadcaster CNN reports the first COVID-19 deaths in the United States, Ireland confirms its first case and the number of infections in Austria climbs to 14 and in Germany to 130.

Monday, March 2

The World Health Organization (WHO) announces that over 3,000 people around the world have died from COVID-19. In Ischgl, meanwhile, the ski season continues undeterred.

The men who transformed the Alpine farming village into the "Ibiza of the Alps" were restaurateurs, ski instructors and school directors – down-to-earth, devout and equipped with a nose for making a buck. Today, the descendants of the Parth, Kurz, Zangerl and Aloys families are largely responsible for the decisions that shape the town's future. Günther Aloys, son of the cable-car pioneer Erwin Aloys, owns the luxurious design hotel Madlein and the Elizabeth Art Hotel. He booked Bob Dylan for a concert once and also hired Paris Hilton to market his canned prosecco. A few years ago, he had 400 cows painted with artworks from Warhol and Picasso, a project that didn't flop for a lack of money but because the paint didn't adhere properly to the animals' hides.

On Silvrettaplatz, the central square in Ischgl, there is a gigantic pair of ski goggles on display this winter bearing the town's four-word slogan: "Relax. If you can …"

Tuesday, March 3

The American broadcaster CNBC reports that according to the WHO, the global mortality rate of the new virus is 3.4 percent, much higher, the organization believes, than previously thought.

John Cormack and his four friends make their way through the bars of Ischgl and sing pop songs despite not understanding any of the lyrics. Torolfur Gudnason reports through the EWRS system that Iceland is now home to 16 confirmed coronavirus cases. All 16 of them were infected in ski areas in the Italian region of Trentino and in Austria.

Wednesday, March 4

Italy orders the closure of all schools and universities. In Germany, the number of confirmed cases has risen to 262. In Reykjavik, Gudnason receives the test results from the plane that arrived from Munich. He then writes two messages in the EWRS system, in which he identifies what he refers to as the Ischgl Cluster. One of the messages goes to all members of the system while the second one goes directly to the authorities in Austria. In Iceland, he writes at 11:55 p.m. that night, there are now 26 confirmed coronavirus infections, with eight of them traceable to Ischgl. Just one day later, that number would climb to 14 and ultimately, it would top out at 21 people from Iceland receiving their infections in Ischgl.

In his press conference, Gudnason declares Ischgl to be a high-risk area.

Gudnason's message posted in the EWRS system means that the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's leading disease control authority, is also informed. Germans represent the largest group among the vacationers in Tyrol, yet on the RKI website, no warning appears at all. Nothing.

Thursday, March 5

At 12:32 a.m., the Austrian Health Ministry informs the Tyrolean health authorities about the message from Reykjavik.

Bernhard Benka, a general practitioner and head of the department for infectious diseases, crisis response and pandemic control in the Austrian Health Ministry, is currently the most important member of Green-Party Health Minister Rudolf Anschober's staff. And he takes immediate action.

There is a lot riding on Benka's assessment. Each hotel bed in Ischgl brings in annual revenues of 11,000 euros, with 83 percent of that business coming in the winter season. Traditionally, March is the most important month. In the entire winter season of 2018-2019, Ischgl reported 1.41 million overnight stays, with the numbers from November 2019 to January 2020 showing a 3.4 increase over the previous year.

Benka's staff begins phoning around and contacts the Reykjavik authorities by email. "Dear colleagues, do you have additional information regarding the patients from Ischgl? When do the symptoms begin? Where did they stay and from when to when? Did they have particularly close contact with anybody?"

That same day, officials in Iceland report the names of the hotels in question to the Health Ministry in Vienna.

At 4:51 p.m., Dietmar Walser, head of the Paznaun-Ischgl tourism association, receives a mail from a leading member of Gudnason's staff in Reykjavik. "Fourteen cases in Iceland are confirmed with recent travel history to Ischgl." And it includes important additional information. Regarding those infected, the email reads: "The people were not in a single group, they stayed in five different hotels and did not have social contact between groups that we have identified."

The virus, in other words, is in Ischgl – and cannot be traced back to a single bar, a single hotel or a single business. Ischgl has become a hotspot, endangering the second half of the season. Furthermore, those tourists leaving Ischgl – such as the 21 skiers from Iceland – are bringing the virus home with them.

Still, the ramifications of the news from Iceland are apparently not fully appreciated in Austria. In Innsbruck, the capital of Tyrol, the provincial health director, Franz Katzgraber, says on this Thursday that the Icelandic tourists likely became infected by a fellow passenger returning from Italy. "From a medical perspective," he says, "it appears that the possibility is low that the infection originated in Tyrol."

John Cormack receives a WhatsApp message from his wife saying that she read that Ischgl is considered a high-risk area, at least in Iceland. Cormack and his friends turn on BBC World News, where reports focus on falling stock prices and the situation in Italy. Nothing is said about a danger emanating from Tyrol. And because nobody in town is saying anything about the assessment from Iceland, they head out to a bar called Kitzloch for the evening. A group of Norwegians order shots and a group of Danish tourists do as well, with the wait staff pushing their way through the crowd all the while, blowing whistles to get people out of the way.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will later recall in a television interview that he was, in early March, "warned by a handful of foreign heads of government outside Europe." In response, he says, he "exerted significant pressure" in Austria for "tough measures" to be taken.

The number of positive cases in Austria on this day is 41, while in Germany it has climbed to 482. The German business daily Handelsblatt prints a headline reading: "Impending Recession: German Government Working on a Crisis Paper."

Friday, March 6

On its website, the Austrian tabloid Österreich reports that the trail of the infections in Iceland leads back to Ischgl. The article's headline reads: "Kept Secret."

The story, though, is largely ignored. Even as health authorities contact the hotels where the tourists from Iceland stayed, the town continues to prepare for yet another weekend of partying.

The health experts suggest that hotel personnel should be tested for coronavirus as should those working at après-ski bars. Tyrol infectious disease specialist Robert Zangerle says: "Après-ski is a perfect virus spreader."

South Tyrol, on the Italian side of the Alps, is also now considered by the German Health Ministry to represent a "potential health danger." But after Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter voices doubts due to his fear that such a designation could damage ski-lift operators in his province, the German government lifts its warning for the Austrian province of Tyrol.

Saturday, March 7

Saturdays are when tourists from the previous week leave Ischgl and the new batch of skiers show up for their week of winter fun. Thousands head home, and thousands more take their place.

On this morning, the first gondola begins heading up the mountain at 8:30 a.m. The cable car can ferry 3,440 passengers an hour up to the Silvretta Arena. Ski lifts are the largest contributor to tourism in Paznaun Valley, responsible for around 80 million euros a year, and representatives of established Ischgl families are on the supervisory board of Silvrettaseilbahn AG, which operates the gondola. Werner Kurz, the mayor of Ischgl, is one of them.

Many of those who have a say in the Tyrol tourism industry are members of the center-right Austrian People's Party (ÖVP), to which Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also belongs. A group called the "Tiroler Adler Runde," an association of 49 business leaders, makes regular donations to the ÖVP and expects political favors in return. Kurz met with group representatives as recently as Feb. 18 in the Grand Hotel Europa in Innsbruck for a discrete discussion.

John Cormack and his friends head back to Ireland on this Saturday and on Sunday, Cormack and his sons go to a hurling match, a sport that isn't dissimilar to hockey. One of his friends isn't feeling well and is tested for coronavirus. The others from the Ischgl group also decide to get tested. It takes almost a week to get their results: All five of them are positive, having become infected with the virus in Ischgl.

Nicola Giesen arrives in Ischgl on this same day with her husband Thomas. They are from Neuss, located 50 kilometers from the town of Heinsberg, newly recognized as Germany's leading coronavirus hotspot. They met each other 30 years ago on a ski trip and their two children have since moved out of the house. The Giesens are eager to get away from the whole coronavirus panic.

In preparation for the trip, Nicola Giesen read around on the internet to find the best restaurants for a meal, but she says she saw nothing about the danger of coronavirus in Ischgl.

In addition to the Giesens, numerous other skiers from Germany likewise arrive in Ischgl on this Saturday, including 200 people making a quick trip to the ski slopes in six buses from the area around Aalen in the southwestern German region of Swabia. Eleven days later, there will be 109 confirmed infections in the Aalen region alone.

As the tourists continue their party in the bars in town, the Austrian press agency APA files a report at 10:31 p.m. Citing the Tyrol health authorities, the article notes that a 36-year-old from Norway working in Ischgl has tested positive for the virus and was "immediately quarantined."

Sunday, March 8

Norway reports that of the country's 1,198 confirmed coronavirus infections, almost 500 can be traced back to Austria. Most of the patients recently spent time in Paznaun Valley. The Norwegian health authority FHI sends a warning to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), headquartered in the Swedish city of Solna. Three days later, Denmark will report that Ischgl is directly or indirectly responsible for more than half of the 262 people in the country who have tested positive for the disease.

Nicole Giesen and her husband ski the Grand Smuggler's Circuit on this day. They eat well and then, from 4:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., they enjoy some wine at an après-ski bar.

At 6:03 p.m., APA reports that the man who tested positive the day before is a barkeeper at the popular après-ski spot known as Kitzloch. Provincial health authorities issue a statement a short time later that a transfer of the virus to bar patrons was "unlikely from a medical perspective." The statement continues: "For all visitors who were in the bar during the time period in question and who are experiencing no symptoms, no further medical measures are necessary."

Kitzloch isn't far from the valley station of the Pardatschgrat Gondola. The shutters on the windows are painted red-and-white and the interior decoration is rustic. The Tomahawk Steak for two costs 89 euros.

Like the Kuhstall, Kitzloch belongs to the hotelier family Zangerl. Peter Zangerl is the third generation of his family to direct operations at the Silvretta Hotel, which opened its doors in 1930, and the place is home to a gourmet restaurant and a 1,200 square meter (13,000 square foot) wellness area. At Kitzloch, guests can order oysters or a concoction of Jägermeister and Red Bull known as a Hirsch.

When it becomes known that the barkeeper is infected with the virus, the place is disinfected. In Germany on this Sunday, the number of infections hits the 1,000 mark and German Health Minister Jens Spahn calls for all events with more than 1,000 participants to be cancelled. Kitzloch, though, is just as full as usual on this Sunday evening. Danish visitors would later say they were standing "like herring in a barrel."

Lombardy reports 103 dead. Just for this Sunday alone.

Monday, March 9

Austria reports 131 infections while Germany experiences its first two COVID-19 deaths. The virologist Christian Drosten from Berlin's Charité University Hospital tells reporters during a press conference: "This is absolutely a serious situation."

In the morning, an urgent warning reaches the Tyrolean health authorities from Norway about the dangers in Ischgl. Finland and Sweden now also view Tyrol as a high-risk region.

Five days after the reports from Iceland, the Tyrol provincial government finally recognizes the need to come clean. As a result of the infection of the Kitzloch barkeeper, it "cannot be ruled out that there is a connection to some of those who have tested positive in Iceland."

Nicola Giesen and her husband are having lunch in a ski-area restaurant when news that the Kitzloch is to be shut down begins spreading among the guests.

At 3:53 p.m., it is reported that the infected barkeeper transmitted the virus to at least 15 other people. At 4:04 p.m., the Schatzi Bar, another local establishment, posts a wish on Facebook for "a sexy new week."

At 4:32, Kitzloch operator Peter Zangerl receives a text message on his smartphone reading: "Close your Kitz bar. Or do you want to be responsible for the end of the season in Ischgl, or maybe even all of Tyrol?"

Franz Hörl: "The entire country is looking at your bar."

Franz Hörl: "The entire country is looking at your bar."


The message comes from Franz Hörl. The ÖVP politician is a member of parliament in Vienna, the deputy head of the Tyrolean Chamber of Commerce and the spokesman for the association of cable-car operators. Hörl is apparently concerned that the news from Kitzloch could hurt business.

A short time later, he sends a second text message to Zangerl: "The entire country is looking at your bar. If just a single camera films operations there, all of Tyrol will look like a Hottentot country."

Hörl also owns a hotel. And what he doesn’t yet know is that staff at his establishment have also become infected.

Peter Zangerl, owner of Kitzloch, composes a reply to Hörl. All decisions, he writes, have been made in consultation with "health authorities, public health officer, executive authorities, etc."

At 6:59 p.m., APA reports that the Kitzloch has been shut down by the Tyrolean authorities "in agreement with the operator."

Tuesday, March 10

In Rome, St. Peter's Square is closed off and the Pope sends out a video appeal asking for the faithful around the world to pray for the priests bringing strength and the word of God to the sick.

In Copenhagen, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announces that the Austrian ski region of Ischgl has been red-listed, alongside the Chinese province of Hubei, the country of Iran, and the South Korean province of Gyeongsangbuk-do.

Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter says in late afternoon: "You can see quite clearly when you look at the suspected cases and the confirmed cases, Ischgl is the hotspot."

His comments come almost a week after the first warnings arrived from Iceland. Platter says that local authorities will be "issuing a decree that all après-ski establishments in Ischgl must close their doors." Provincial health director Katzgraber, who said the previous Thursday that "the possibility was low" that the Icelandic vacationers had become infected in Ischgl, now says: those who spend their evenings in packed places "and who are tipsy to a greater or lesser degree" are living dangerously.

In the neighboring municipality of St. Christoph, meanwhile, 130 sports physicians are taking part in a congress. After the event comes to an end, the majority of them decide to stay for a bit of skiing and partying. Several days later, at least nine of the doctors are identified as being corona positive.

Wednesday, March 11

The WHO announces that coronavirus is now a pandemic. President Donald Trump announces a ban on travel from Europe to the United States. Germany now has 1,900 confirmed cases and Austria has 246. Ireland reports its first COVID-19 deaths.

In Ischgl, Nicola Giesen learns in the afternoon that additional après-ski bars are to be closed, but she and her husband decide not to break off their vacation. She takes a photo on her phone of the main street through town. It is packed with people.

On this Wednesday, too, it is business as usual. In the afternoon, Governor Platter in Innsbruck announces that ski areas in Ischgl will be shut down for a two-week period on the coming Saturday. He proudly says: "We're a bit ahead of the other states."

And provincial health director Katzgraber? Foreigners showing no symptoms who only fall ill after the incubation period will, he says, "unfortunately carry the virus home with them."

On this Wednesday, the ski day in Ischgl ends for the first time without après ski. Restaurants, though, are still open into the evening.

Thursday, March 12

The German stock market index DAX loses almost 1,300 points, while news broadcaster n-tv writes on its website: "Panic is spreading." Five people have died of the disease in Germany by this Thursday and the virologist Drosten posts a message on Twitter, reading: "We will soon have to begin focusing on the protection, the testing and the prioritized hospital treatment of groups that are especially at risk."

In Ischgl, there is indecision about what to do. The cable cars are still running, but Andreas Steibl, head of the tourism association, announces that the season will be brought to a premature end on March 15. Ischgl hotel operator Günter Aloys, though, says: "It's nothing more than a flu and isn't deadly for the vast majority who get it."

In the evening, Governor Platter meets with tourism industry representatives. After the meeting, it is said that Platter and Hörl, the spokesman for cable-car operators, screamed at each other – an account denied only by Hörl.

Friday, March 13

In the main hall of the Tyrolean capital building in Innsbruck, Governor Platter announces that he, following a video conference with Austrian Chancellor Kurz, has to present "far-reaching consequences" for Tyrol. The season, he says, is over and the focus must now be on preventing 150,000 new guests from streaming into Tyrol.

Franz Hörl is standing next to Platter as the measures are announced. He says the move amounts to "the most serious interruption for the economy and for tourism since World War II." He adds that the steps just announced are of course "currently incomprehensible" for many people. "After all, we are closing down the state despite the hotels and the ski runs being full," and despite the fact that two-thirds of the state "is currently completely unaffected" by the virus.

When Chancellor Kurz steps before reporters at 2 p.m. in Vienna, Nicola Giesen and her husband are having lunch. The two are listening on the radio as Kurz tells his compatriots of the more stringent measures going into effect. He has a special message specifically for the Paznaun Valley and for the nearby municipality of St. Anton: "These regions will be immediately isolated," Kurz says.

The Giesens head down to the valley. The father of their hotelkeeper advises them to head out immediately, saying it is unclear for how much longer the borders will remain open. He stamps their guest card so they can show it upon leaving Ischgl. A few days later, they will both test positive for coronavirus back home in Germany.

Entire tourist groups are now rushing to leave Tyrol, and it appears that none of them are tested for the virus upon departure. Traffic jams develop as vacationers flee the ski resorts, even though their flights aren't scheduled to take off for another day or two. Once they hit Wiesberg at the end of Paznaun Valley, the vacationers spread out all across Europe on this Friday evening.

The headlines of the day include: "Quarantine Zone Ischgl: Total Chaos" – and: "Ischgl and St. Anton: Austrian Army Deployed to Tyrol" – and: "Over 100 Danes Have Become Infected in Ischgl."

In the evening, the Robert Koch Institute in Berlin designates Tyrol as a high-risk area, more than a week after the authorities in Iceland, six days after the Norwegians and three days after the Danes. When contacted by DER SPIEGEL to ask why the RKI waited until March 13, the spokeswoman says: "Due to the current situation, we don't have the resources for historical research."

Because of the premature end to the season, there will be 380,000 fewer overnight stays than expected, says the tourism association in Ischgl. Alexander von der Thannen, head of the association, estimates that profits will plunge by 20 to 25 percent.

In the United States, Donald Trump announces a national state of emergency.

The cable cars and chairlifts in Ischgl have now stopped running and the bars and restaurants have shut their doors. The end of the season concert, featuring Eros Ramazotti, has been cancelled. Ischgl now lies like an abandoned amusement park in Tyrol's Paznaun Valley.

Eleven days later, on March 24, the Austrian association for consumer protection files a legal complaint against Tyrol, Tyrolean Governor Günther Platter, provincial health director Franz Katzgraber, the Silvrettaseilbahn AG and against other business leaders and hoteliers. And against Franz Hörl, the spokesman for cable-car operators. The accusation: willful creation of a public danger.

And one day after that, on March 25, the British daily Telegraph reports that IT consultant Daren Bland from Maresfield in East Sussex became infected with coronavirus in Tyrol back in January. He was, the paper reports, in Ischgl on a ski vacation with three friends from Jan. 15-19. Two of the friends are from Denmark and the third from the U.S. state of Minnesota. All three of them developed coronavirus symptoms after returning home.

Once he returned home, Bland infected his wife and daughter. It is possible, the paper reports, that Bland represents the very first British case of coronavirus.

For Ischgl and the rest of the valley, the early end to the season means revenue losses of 111 million euros this winter. The damage to the rest of the world cannot yet be accurately calculated. In Twitter, the hashtag #Ischlgate has been making the rounds and the name of the Tyrolean mountain town has been uttered in the same breath with Wuhan, Heinsberg and Bergamo.

These were the numbers on March 26 at 5:30 p.m.:

Austria: 6,398 infected / 49 deaths
Iceland: 802 / 2
Ireland: 1,564 / 9
Denmark: 1,997 / 41
Norway: 3,279 / 14
Italy: 74,386 / 7,503
Germany: 41,519 / 239