In retrospect, officials in Tyrol will surely regret that they didn’t take the corona crisis more seriously early on. Now faced with a class action suit filed March 24 – a relatively rare thing in Austria – the region of Tyrol, the Austrian government and even individual hotels could face many millions of euros in awards and damages. Attorney and former MP Peter Kolba of the Consumer Protection Association reports over 4500 interested in joining the suit, some 75% from Germany, others from as far away as Israel, Singapore and Zimbabwe.
The authorities were very slow to react, Kolba says, and waited far too long to close down the resorts. The question for the courts is to establish whether or not it was intentional. There seems to be plenty of evidence, at least of a choice to look away.
Early warnings were ignored: The first cases were reported on Feb. 25 of an Italian couple working at the Hotel Europa in Innsbruck. Regional health director Franz Katzgrüber played it down: It was “unlikely on medical grounds” that other guests might become infected. Iceland disagreed and on March 5th, declared Ischgl a high-risk area for Covid-19, putting returning vacationers into 14-day quarantine. Still the denials came: Spokesman Florian Kurzhaler insisted the Islanders caught the virus on the plane home. “Ischgl has no cases of coronavirus.”
On March 7th, amid continuing denials, a team of doctors was sent in: A bartender of the après-ski-bar “Kitzloch” tested positive – possibly “patient zero” – along with 15 others.
On March 8th, the frustrated Norwegians alerted the EU Health Ministry, who notified the Austrians Health Ministry. Governor Günther Platter brushed the news aside: There were no plans for quarantine, or other “dramatic measures” like ending the season early. On March 10, the Danes declared Ischgl as a “no-go” zone; on March 12, the Germans.
Pressure from the tourism sector
Behind it all, it seemed increasingly clear, stood the pressure from the tourism sector from the hotel, restaurant and ski lift operators who wanted to keep the season going as long as possible. In Tyrol, tourism is the engine of the economy, providing 42% of all jobs. Ischgl’s 1,500 residents host 300,000 tourists a year for 1.5 million bed-nights, with 80% in the winter season, according to the Austrian Tourism Board
And with all the climate uncertainties haunting winter sports in Austria, the 2019-2020 season in Tyrol was on its way to being a good year. It had snowed generously in November and December, filling the hotels over the Christmas holidays and leaving a good base on the slopes, according to www.onthesnow.com. January was light, but then another 26 inches came down over the school holidays in February with more forecast for the thousands of skiers expected in March. There were 1.7 million guests for 8.3 million bed-nights in the month of February alone, up 11.5% over the previous year.
It was a lot to give up.
Finally, on Friday, March 13, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that the Paznaun Valley and St. Anton regions of Tyrol would be immediately isolated. Which came as a surprise to many of the locals, who had expected at least a few more days to allow guests to depart as planned after the weekend.
Suddenly, panicked skiers stormed the lobbies to check out, only to find that the trains would no longer stop to pick them up. The lucky ones found taxis all the way to Innsbruck. Others waited for hours for busses so packed it was impossible to keep any distance. Under rumors that staying on meant two weeks quarantine, hotels refused to rebook, effectively putting their guests out onto the street.
Skiers carried the coronavirus far afield
From here, local authorities escorted stranded skiers to hotels in nearby towns. One group was given rooms in a guesthouse at no charge, according to Der Standard, March 17. “We wanted to help,” the hotel owner told the paper. After all, these were guests in Tyrol, and they shouldn’t be treated this way. In Innsbruck, hundreds more found hotel rooms across the city, awaiting scheduled train and flight connections. In retrospect, this uncontrolled diaspora was a medical disaster that clearly made the contagion worse.
From Ischgl and other Tyrolean resorts, skiers carried the coronavirus far afield. In Europe alone, an analysis of Instagram postings showed hundreds of vacationers returning in early March to Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Scandinavia. And most of all, to Germany, where the Bayerischen Rundfunk (BR) identified 341 cases in 101 different communities. Each, of course, was a carrier.
It was a comedy of errors, made worse by persistent denials: Regional Health Minister Bernhard Tilg made himself a laughing stock with the ORF’s Armin Wolf March 16, when he insisted over and over that “the authorities did everything right.”
By March 29, over 1000 coronavirus cases across Europe could be traced to Ischgl, according to the EU Health Ministry, and more that 1500 cases in Tyrol itself, by far the highest infection rate in the country. Still, Tyrol claims their numbers as a measure of successful containment. Not so, says class-action attorney Peter Kolba: “In truth, they simply shipped the infected ones abroad.”