(Bloomberg) -- Icelandic authorities warned their Austrian counterparts that the Alpine ski resort of Ischgl had become a coronavirus hotspot more than a week before the station was shut down, in a revelation that adds further pressure on the town under investigation for an alleged cover-up.
Reykjavik officials emailed the Austrian Ministry of Health on March 4, warning that 14 tourists had returned to Iceland from Ischgl and had tested positive for coronavirus as early as late February, Austrian authorities confirmed this week.
The Icelandic emails included details of the hotels where the guests stayed in late February, helping to identify the virus’s epicenter in Ischgl.
The messages raise fresh questions and put more pressure on Austrian officials to explain why they waited nine days before shuttering the resort. A mass lawsuit on behalf of more than 5,000 ski tourists is looming as prosecutors continue to delve into whether charges should be laid for criminal negligence or worse, to determine if locals looked the other way so as to not jeopardize the most lucrative part of the ski season.
The Ischgl outbreak and its aftermath brought down the curtain on the most over-the-top apres-ski scene in the Alps, where heavy drinking typically began well before noon. As the lifts close at the resort known as the “Ibiza of the Alps,” skiers crammed into bars like Schatzi, the Kuhstall and the Kitzloch for games of beer pong, while models in Dirndl-themed bikinis gyrated on podiums to the oompah beats of DJ Oetzi. The resort’s biggest money-spinner has been an end-of-season mountaintop concert that has featured the likes of Robbie Williams. This year’s event with Eros Ramazzotti was canceled.
“You’d have to say it doesn’t look good for them, given that there were obvious problems that they appear to have ignored,” said Mark Lee, a travel lawyer with Penningtons outside London who’s not involved in the case. “I’ve seen the timeline of events in Ischgl and on the face of it, it seems likely the prosecutor may conclude that the local authority did negligently endanger people.”
The Ischgl case bears similarities to the cruise ships accused of being aware of the spread of the virus days before they took meaningful action to stop its spread, said Lee. “This is potentially the thin end of the wedge for more cases, and I think a lot of people will be watching with real interest to see how this case evolves.”
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There’s already one claim that has been filed on behalf of 30 German skiers that would be accepted if Austrian prosecutors decide to lay charges.
“Why weren’t there any measures taken when there were already so many suspected cases” by early March, asked Stefan Rastl, the Vienna lawyer acting for the Germans. “Why didn’t the Tyrolean government act as soon as they had the warning from Iceland?”
It’s hard to overstate the role of tourism for the broader economy in Tyrol, the mountainous Austrian province sandwiched between Germany and Italy. A quarter of regional output comes from the mostly foreign guests who sleep, eat, and play there; and the ski instructors and bar-keepers who cater to them. Remote villages like Ischgl would be dying hamlets were it not for the influx of tourists in winter and summer.
Nearly 300 local families are shareholders of ski-lift operator Silvrettaseilbahn AG and many work there or at local hotels and bars. The March 13 shutdown cut the final third of a typical 150-day long ski season.
When on March 7, a bartender at the Kitzloch bar tested positive for coronavirus, no one thought the resort was less than a week from shutting down for the season. Tyrol’s health inspectors allowed the popular hangout near to the lifts to reopen the next day with new staff while the regular workers were tested. Two days later, test results showed the entire staff had caught the virus and only then was it closed.
“With hindsight, it was a big mistake, we’re blaming ourselves for not having shuttered the Kitzloch,” owner Wolfgang Zangerl said in an interview with German magazine Focus. “But we listened to the experts from the authorities and trusted them to give us the right instructions.” Zangerl didn’t respond to a separate interview request.
The head of Tyrol’s emergency task force, Herbert Forster, says the temporary re-opening of the bar was in line with protocol and that it was shut for good, along with all other bars in Ischgl, when it became clear how widespread the infection was. More forceful measures earlier would have been hard to argue for even based on emergency laws for epidemics, he said in an interview.
Like Forster and Zangerl, Tyrol Governor Guenther Platter has said everything is clearer in hindsight and there should be no rush to apportion blame. “If you read the book from back to front, you know how it ends,” he told journalists May 6. Platter was not available for an interview until next week, Tyrol officials told Bloomberg.
Werner Kurz, Ischgl’s mayor echoed Platter’s sentiments when asked in an email exchange if he considered closing down the whole town earlier than March 13.
“In hindsight, you are always smarter,” said Kurz. When the bars in town were closed down on March 10, there were soccer stadiums in Europe still packed with thousands of fans, he pointed out.
“The virus and its effects were unimaginable worldwide at the beginning of March,” said Kurz. “Nobody could be prepared for such a pandemic.”
Kurz said that the town acted “to the best of our knowledge and belief” and that local officials immediately implemented the requirements and regulations of Tyrol authorities.
Unfortunately when the Tyrol government finally did quarantine the entire valley around Ischgl on March 13, it spread the virus more widely. Rather than lock down tourists with valley residents, guests were told to leave the same day and asked to quarantine themselves at home, scattering to Germany, Iceland, Israel and beyond.
Asked about that, task force head Forster said that preventing around 30,000 tourists who’d just ended their holiday from going home, even as most of them had no symptoms, would have been hard for them to accept and practically impossible to enforce. Instead, Tyrol did what it could, registering the leaving guests, imploring them to return directly, and reporting them to their home countries.
Les Contamines, Verbier
To be sure, Ischgl was not the only ski station hit by the virus. Les Contamines, close to Mont Blanc in the French Alps, was a flashpoint, with a British national infecting five others.
Verbier, a chic resort in neighboring Switzerland, was hit hard but when local doctors called for it to be quarantined federal authorities demurred. But even there, no one has been accused of a cover-up or criminal negligence.
Read more: Chic Alpine Resort Became a Virus Hotspot as Officials Dallied
A mass lawsuit looming from Austria’s Consumer Protection Association aims to do exactly that, targeting the events in Ischgl.
“Keeping ski resorts open, even though authorities knew or should have known of a threat of mass infection, is certainly a reason to consider claims for damages,” said association chief Peter Kolba, who is spearheading the claim from thousands of skiers from Germany, Scandinavia, Russia and the U.S. Kolba said he’s waiting to see a 1,000-page report police filed to regional prosecutors in Innsbruck before acting further.
Back at the Kitzloch, Zangerl doesn’t want to see a repeat of the outbreak next winter, but he knows enough to not rule it out.
“The whole affair should be investigated on every level,” he told Focus. “And next time everybody should react better, faster and more coordinated.”
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