How an Austrian ski paradise became a COVID-19 hotspot

The popular Austrian ski town, Ischgl, became a hotspot for the coronavirus, despite warnings from international authorities. [EPA-EFE | STR]

Ischgl, an Austrian ski resort, has achieved tragic international fame: hundreds of tourists are believed to have contracted the coronavirus there and taken it home with them. The Tyrolean state government is now facing serious criticism.

The village of Ischgl in Tyrol is one of Austria’s most popular ski resorts. The village of 1,600 inhabitants is surrounded by magnificent mountains, whose perfectly groomed slopes attract winter sports enthusiasts from all over the world.

Renowned musicians like Lenny Kravitz and SEEED have already played here, and two new chairlifts were opened at this year’s start of the season. Everything spoke for another magnificent winter in the ski paradise.

But then the coronavirus came to Ischgl, and was able to spread there unhindered. International ski tourists became infected and brought the virus back home, mostly to Northern Europe and Germany, according to research by t-online.

The blame is now being laid at the door of the Tyrolean state government for failing to respond to international warnings in time. But Health State Councillor Bernhard Tilg (ÖVP) emphasised in a television interview that the authorities had “done everything right”.

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Warnings from Iceland ignored

Icelandic authorities had already declared Ischgl a risk area on 5 March, on a par with Wuhan or Iran. However, it took nine days for the Austrian government to take measures to isolate the area.

The Icelandic warning was issued after returning Ischgl vacationers tested positive for the coronavirus.

Franz Katzgraber, Director of the Tyrolean Regional Health Service, responded by stating that “from a medical point of view, it is unlikely that infections have occurred in Tyrol.” Instead, he put forward the thesis that the Icelanders contracted the disease from another air passenger, a person returning from Italy.

This sick fellow passenger actually existed. Nevertheless, Icelandic authorities decided to take this step on 5 March, and Tyrol decided to continue the lively skiing. But more and more corona cases with Ischgl-Konnex followed. Alarmed by the Icelandic decision, Norway began testing returnees from Tyrol. The result was available on 8 March: out of 1,198 infected, 491 had the virus from Austria, mainly from Tyrol.

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Fatal mistakes

In the meantime, there was also a confirmed infection in Ischgl itself. On the evening of 7 March, a 36-year-old German was tested positive. He worked as a bartender in a popular après-ski bar, packed with tourists from all over the world every evening. The diagnosis came two days after Iceland’s classification of Ischgl as a risk area and one day before Norway’s announcement of the Tyrol infections.

The next day the Tyrolean state government declared that a transmission to guests of the bar was “rather unlikely from a medical point of view.” The next day, 15 people from the barkeeper’s circle tested positive, and the provincial government made a rhetorical U-turn: It could “not be excluded that there is a connection to some of the people who tested positive in Iceland.”

The bar was closed on 10 March. But the ski operations continued on 7 and 8 March, when the infections of the bartender and his acquaintances were already known.

In the following week, the diagnoses increased in Tyrol, the province became the corona hotspot of Austria, where the virus spread the fastest. Some communities were put under quarantine, but others, which were right next door, were not.

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Authorities “did everything right”

On the evening of 16 March, the state government of Tyrol had a chance of explaining its behaviour during a TV show. Bernhard Tilg, State Councillor for Health, was a guest on Austria’s most important news programme via video link. But he only stressed again and again that the authorities had done everything right without answering the questions from the moderator, Armin Wolf.

The accusations against the provincial government grew louder, and opposition parties are now demanding the resignation of State Health Councilor Tilg.

Two days later, on March 18th, provincial governor Günther Platter (ÖVP) finally decreed a  lockdown throughout Tyrol. Since then, no one has been allowed to leave their homes without good reason.

Apart from Iceland and Norway, other European countries have reported cases of COVID-19 from returning Ischgl vacationers, including Denmark and Germany.

Manfred Lucha, Minister of Social Affairs of Baden-Württemberg from the Greens, even said: “Our problem is not Iran, but Ischgl.” Harsh words for a place that is still one of the most beautiful skiing areas in Austria.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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