The Easter holidays are the traditional start of the Sommerfrische – the escape from city to countryside, to crocuses and apple blossoms, the first forsythia and early lilacs. Families go to summerhouses, or take day trips to cycle along the Danube or around the Neusiedlersee.
So it was surely a sign of the times when, on April 3, the Regional Association of Mayors of Ausseerland-Salzkammergut pronounced their dismay at the visitors swarming the region. In a letter to the media, they voiced “great concern” at security services’ reports of “large numbers of second home owners and day tourists coming to spend time in Styria’s Salzkammergut. And it is exactly these guests,” the mayors wrote, “who are defying local ordinances and the regulations of the Federal Government.” They went on to call for “a type of community quarantine,” such that no one would be able to cross town lines except for the established reasons of food or pharmaceuticals. “Second-home owners have to choose whether to spend the crisis in their primary or secondary residence,” the letter said. Tweeted by Profil editor Christian Rainer, the letter went viral.
The license plates
But they were hardly the first: The topic had been tossed around social media forums and comment lines for days – at least since March 28, when a Letter to the Editor to a Upper Austrian free-circulation local called Tips struck a chord:
“Why the Attersee Region could soon become a 2nd Ischgl,” (the Tyrolean ski resort seen as an early breeding ground for COVID-19.) wrote one Veronika Petermaier from Seewalchen. Her evidence: the license plates. While all the local plates had vanished under lockdown, the streets and parking lots were full of cars from Vienna, Linz, Graz, Wels, Innsbruck!! – the center of Ischgl spillover.
“People are spreading out from the greater urban areas onto the supposedly safe countryside, and overlooking their many social contacts from recent days that they bring with them” – using local groceries, pharmacies, etc. that will now be crowded. The consequences, she felt, were obvious. Not to mention the inadequate country medical services. She appealed to the government to ban travel to vacation homes – as had been done in Italy – so people would “stop confusing the Corona Crisis with a holiday on the Attersee.”
Primary residences and second homes
The comments were numerous and covered the full range, from a plea for reason (“The second homeowners are keeping to the rules, not celebrating in àpres-ski parties on the Attersee”) to full throated support for Petermaier’s letter (“All citizens should stay in their primary residences”) Along with puzzling complaints that “they are burdening our infrastructure,” That second-home owners pay as much in property taxes as locals easily gets lost in the panic-tinged mood.
In terms of the science, the mayors were on solid ground. The goal of the Ausgangsbeschränkungen, the restrictions on movement, was to stop people from going anywhere at all – to in fact stay inside, except for absolute necessities like grocery shopping, going to an essential job or caring for someone in need. Even taking a walk in the neighborhood was restricted by the closing of the nationally-owned public gardens. Seen from this perspective, traveling 250 kilometers to the Salzkammergut was a bit of a stretch.
In terms of the perception, sadly, not so. To other Austrians, this sounded mean-spirited. On ZiB2 April 7, veteran newsman Armin Wolf entitled his closing segment “Inländer raus” – a sardonic take off on the FPÖ-anti-immigrant mantra “Ausländer raus!” (Foreigners Out!) – documenting the growing number of small towns mobilizing to discourage outsiders.
“It clearly backfired”
“In normal times we look forward to every visitor,” said stern-faced Mayor Otto Kloiber of St. Gilgen on the program. “But now we need to keep the community for ourselves.” Walkers, climbers, cyclists not welcome: the parking lots would be closed over the Easter weekend.
“Brotherly love has been exhausted,” concluded Wolf, wryly. Other journalists gleefully joined in. “The decisiveness of our shared efforts at social distancing has long been suspicious anyway,” teased Dominik Kamalzadeh in Der Standard, April 8. Columnist Hans Raucher quoted Steinbach Mayor Nicole Eder’s gush of enthusiasm at seeing the city folk again – “only afterwards!” His comment: “Thanks. We’ll think about it.”
It became obvious that the mayors’ letter had not had the desired effect: “It clearly backfired,” (“Das ist in die Hose gegangen!”) said Altaussee Mayor Gerald Loitzl. They of course had nothing against second-home owners; “We know how important they are for our region,” he hastened to reassure. “The letter was just insanely badly formulated.” It had been the constant back and forth – the commuting from town to country – that they had wanted to prevent.
So in the end, the mayors were medically correct. But politically wrong. Fortunately for all of us, no further hot spots of infection spread from Austria’s cities to the regions and small towns. We were lucky.
And the mayors of the Salzkammergut have to live with a little egg on their faces.