The results are finally in: The Ischgl Report, commissioned by the Tyrolean government examines the fatal events of March 2020, when a remote mountain village became the breeding ground for the “virus [that] hitched a ride around the world.” Considered a “ground zero” hot spot, more than 11,000 thousand of worldwide COVID-19 infections and at least 32 deaths have been traced back to Ischgl.
According to Roland Rohrer, chair of the investigating commission, the chaotic situation was caused by a series of misjudgments and delayed reactions, public misinformation and communication errors. While the report acknowledges the pressure decision makers faced in unprecedented circumstances, the report blames state and federal authorities for a badly organized crisis unit, poor preparation based on a pandemic plan from 2006 and a law on epidemics dating back to 1950.
Severe criticism was also directed at the Tyrolean government for downplaying the severity of the situation. When Iceland warned local authorities on March 5 that 14 vacationers returning from Ischgl had tested positive, the state’s press service insisted they must have been infected on the flight home, although – as the report shows – officials already knew that they had flown on different days.
The public was “placated” and “not all facts were shared,” Rohrer wrote – a rather compliant evaluation of what Austrian weekly Profil and ORF’s nightly news ZIB2 called a deliberate misinformation campaign to protect the remaining winter tourism season. Their investigation uncovered an email, allegedly sent from Landeck’s District Governor Markus Maaß to Tyrol’s Governor Günther Platter (ÖVP) in Innsbruck: “By this, we should have Ischgl provisionally out of the line of fire.”
The report finds that false information had also been released about the staffer at the après-ski-bar “Kitzloch” – possibly “patient zero” – who had tested positive for COVID-19 on March 7. The report clarified: It wasn’t a bartender (as the March press release said) but a waiter, passing through the crowd with a whistle, making him a superspreader all the more.
While the Tyrolean crisis unit was voicing concerns about expected case numbers, the official release the same day appeased: “Transmission relating to the bar is unlikely.” It wasn’t until the next day, when 16 other employees tested positive, that the bar was closed. Everything else, however, stayed open.
This was clear misconduct, the report decided: By March 9, officials must have been aware of the threat of an uncontrolled outbreak. Mass gatherings should have been forbidden, restaurants and bars closed, said Rohrer.
Sudden Quarantine Announcement
On March 10, Denmark declared Ischgl a risk zone; on March 12, the Germans followed suit. But in Ischgl, nothing happened until March 13. While there are “no indications” that decision makers were pressured by economic groups, the report concedes that the municipality – a shareholder in the ski lifts – had an interest in keeping the industry running.
In Tyrol, where tourism generates nearly one quarter of all full-time jobs, politics and the economy are tightly interwoven. Ischgl, a community of about 1,600 inhabitants, recorded more than 1.5 million overnight stays in 2019 – 80% in the winter season.
This might explain why authorities waited four extra days until they finally reacted to the soaring infection rates. On March 13, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) announced the “immediate isolation” of the Patznauntal surrounding Ischgl. The announcement of quarantine came “unexpected, without immediate responsibilities assigned and without substantial preparation,” criticizes the report. Chancellor Kurz also failed to explain that foreign visitors would still be allowed to leave.
This “communication error” led to the chaotic departure of hundreds of tourists. The report describes scenes of panicked visitors jumping into their cars, throwing rented skis in the corner, leaving their belongings at the hotel. According to the report, Governor Platter informed Kurz prior to the press conference that preparation was needed for an evacuation. And local District Governor Maaß stated that he still didn’t expect quarantine measures on the morning of March 13 – thus leaving no time to set up checkpoints, hand out registration sheets or draft an evacuation plan.
Debates About Consequences
The report’s purpose was not to pass any political or legal judgments, Rohrer stressed, but to learn from past mistakes for the future. And, to be fair,Governor Platter and his ÖVP party colleagues admitted their initial mistakes. However, he believes the report proves that officials have coped rather well, taking “courageous decisions.” Hence, no need for personal consequences.
Naturally, the opposition sees the situation differently, demanding Platter take responsibility for the mismanagement and criticizing the lack of a “resignation culture” – a jab at Tyrolean Health Secretary Bernhard Tilg (ÖVP), who insisted back in March that authorities “have done everything right.” While he later admitted errors, he nonetheless refused to resign.
Opposition leaders also demanded consequences at the federal level. Upon an urgent request from the NEOS, Austrian Minister of Health Rudolf Anschober (Greens) appeared in Parliament on October 14 for further questioning, and SPÖ leader Pamela Rendi-Wagner announced the possibility of a Parliamentary investigation.
While the report only offers recommendations, the Ischgl affair may still have legal consequences. The prosecution is investigating Ischgl’s ÖVP-affiliated Mayor Werner Kurz and three district representatives for “negligent endangerment through contagious diseases.” The mayor is accused of delaying the announcement to close the ski lifts by three days, thus increasing the risk of infection.
Meanwhile, discussions are underway of how to organize the upcoming season, including strict distancing rules for lifts and restaurants, compulsory testing at hotels, and, as one Tyrolean entrepreneur suggested, a second autumnal lockdown to lower cases before slopes open.
The winter season, they seem to be saying, should be saved at any costs.