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Austria: Mishandling of coronavirus outbreak at ski resort

October 12, 2020

One of Europe's first coronavirus outbreaks was witnessed at a ski resort in the region of Tyrol. An independent investigation has blamed a slow reaction and poor communication from officials for worsening the crisis.

Apres-Ski Bar, Tyrol, Austria
Image: Getty Images/AFP/APA/J. Gruber

The reaction to one of Europe's first coronavirus outbreaks in Tyrol, Austria was littered with mistakes, from Chancellor Sebastian Kurz all the way down to Ischgl's mayor, an independent commission reported on Monday.

Local authorities were too slow and there were "serious miscalculations" in the early days of the outbreak in Ischgl, a popular ski resort in western Austria, said Ronald Rohrer, chairman of the expert commission set up to examine the outbreak response.

A group of skiers from Iceland who had been in Ischgl first mentioned symptoms on March 3, Rohrer told reporters. By March 5, Tyrol authorities were aware and began searching for possible contacts. On March 7, an Ischgl bartender tested positive for COVID-19.

"From March 8, a correct assessment should have led to the closing of bars, the stopping of ski lifts and orderly management of departures," of tourists from Ischgl, the report said.

The establishment where the bartender who tested positive worked was shut down on March 9. The next day all apres-ski locations followed suit.

Too slow, poor communication

But the decision was only made March 12 to shut down the rest of the ski season in Ischgl, too late "from an epidemiological point of view," while provincial governor Günther Platter was also cited as Rohrer said he and other officials "reacted too late." 

Rohrer was particularly critical of the circumstances surrounding poor communications — from officials at both a local and federal level. 

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that numerous areas would be put under quarantine on March 13. However, Kurz didn't explain that foreign visitors and others would be allowed to leave, meaning tourists fled Ischgl in panic rather than waiting for an organized evacuation, the commission found.

"That created a panicked reaction from guests and workers,'' Rohrer told reporters in Innsbruck, the capital of Tyrol and Austria's fifth-largest city. "Some of the guests jumped into their cars with their ski boots still on, and rental skis were thrown into the entranceways of shops."

'Learn from mistakes'

Rohrer stressed that his report wasn't meant to pass judgment, but that Austria could "learn from the mistakes of the past for the future."

Last month, an Austrian consumer protection group filed four civil lawsuits against the country's government for failing to contain the spread of the novel virus at the ski resort known for its party scene.

Austrian prosecutors said they were investigating the suspects — an Austrian and three Germans — over alleged mishandling of the outbreak at the Ischgl ski resort. The outbreak has been linked to thousands of infections across Europe.

To prevent similar COVID-19 clusters in the upcoming snow season, authorities have imposed a ban on partying as well as curfews for ski resorts.

jsi/dr (Reuters, AP, dpa, AFP)