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‘Après-ski is a virus spewer’: Health officials shut down this Austrian Alps village over coronavirus fears

March 28, 2020, 10:00 AM UTC

Lured by its lively reputation, tourists like to pile into the Kitzloch bar for rollicking music and filling Teutonic food after a long day hitting the slopes in the Austrian Alps.

Conveniently located next to a cable car station and enjoying top marks on Tripadvisor, it’s part of a thriving après-ski party scene in the Tyrolean village of Ischgl. 

Yet calls go unanswered and its website has gone dark after it emerged that the after-ski bar and restaurant along with others in the winter resort town may have unwittingly served as a breeding ground for the coronavirus

Despite its 1,600 year-round inhabitants, Ischgl appears to have played an important role in spreading the virus across Europe by infecting travelers returning to countries as distant as Iceland and Norway.

Speaking to Austrian national daily Der Standard, Tyrolean virologist Robert Zangerle provided a blunt assessment of what he believed was responsible for multiplying the infection: “Après-ski is a virus spewer.”

A closed après-ski bar is seen on March 13, 2020, in Ischgl in Tyrol, Austria, as the winter season ended earlier this year because of the coronavirus epidemic. Austria tightened its coronavirus response by announcing the closure of nonessential retail businesses, suspending flights to France, Spain, and Switzerland, and locking down two western communities in Tyrol particularly affected by the coronavirus, the Paznaun valley with tourism hotspots such as Ischgl and Galtuer as well as Saint Anton am Arlberg. (Photo by JAKOB GRUBER / APA / AFP) / Austria OUT (Photo by JAKOB GRUBER/APA/AFP via Getty Images)

Health officials across Europe have since added Tyrol to the list of red zones alongside the likes of China, Iran, Italy, and parts of New York City. Since March 13, all ski lifts have ground to a halt, and snow caterpillars lie dormant after the winter season ended prematurely amid a nationwide curfew lasting through Easter. 

The events that transpired in Ischgl can only be described as a case study in downplaying a deadly contagion, demonstrating how authorities persistently underestimated the risks of infection rather than err on the side of caution. 

A first warning sign emerged on Feb. 29 when more than a dozen passengers that left Munich for Iceland’s Keflavik Airport tested positive for the virus and suspiciously shared one common trait—they had all just returned from a vacation in Ischgl.

Less than a week later, Iceland’s chief epidemiologist explicitly recommended any travelers that had been in the Austrian ski village to self-quarantine. Senior health officials from the state government of Tyrol did nothing in those days, however, choosing instead to refute the allegations rather than investigate them. “Speaking from a medical perspective, it appears very unlikely that the infections occurred in Tyrol,” its chief medical officer, Franz Katzgraber, said in a published statement at the time.

Meanwhile, the bustling party in Ischgl continued. 

Mapping an outbreak

Shortly thereafter authorities in Denmark discovered roughly half of all patients with coronavirus had likewise just returned from Ischgl. For Norway it was several hundred, according to one of the first investigative reports documenting the transmission. German metropolis Hamburg also recorded reportedly 80 cases linked to Ischgl’s hospitality scene, along with patients in numerous other municipalities.

Ischgl’s après-ski establishments finally closed on March 10 with immediate effect, two days after a German bartender at Kitzloch had been diagnosed with the illness, the first documented infection. Over a dozen people who worked with him also had been infected. The ski slopes in Ischgl, however, remained open until March 14 and shut elsewhere only when Vienna imposed the curfew.

“Greed and failure,” condemned Der Standard, reporting the number of cases that could be traced back to the Kitzloch grew daily. According to the Johns Hopkins Covid-19 tracker, Austria had 6,703 confirmed cases as of March 27, 49 of whom died.

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In an interview with the country’s premier television news journalist, state health minister Bernhard Tilg insisted that no mistakes had been made and said repeatedly that the “authorities did everything correctly” each time he was confronted with the facts of the case. Comments like this have infuriated Austrians.

An online petition was started demanding the health minister’s resignation, while the opposition Social Democrats blamed Tilg and Katzgraber for the “systemic failure.” Max Schrems, the Austrian activist who successfully sued Google and Facebook before the European Court over data privacy violations, also took to Twitter to vent his frustration

“Incomprehensible how a couple of places in Tyrol succeeded in serving as a central corona hub for half of Europe and absolutely insufferable how the politicians in Tyrol today can still say 10 times over that ‘everything was done right,’” he wrote. 

“The virus didn’t originate here”

Ischgl’s slow response has been witnessed around the globe. Just as Icelanders were unknowingly infecting themselves in bars like the Kitzloch, German Catholics across the border were busy celebrating Carnival together in large numbers. Florida’s governor closed public beaches in two counties only after thousands of students had already flocked there for spring break.

Ischgl Mayor Werner Kurz argues he acted on the best knowledge and recommendations of medical experts at the time. Germany’s own leading authority, the Robert Koch Institute, upgraded the risk level to “high” from “moderate” only this week, he cited.

“The virus didn’t originate here, it was brought to us,” Kurz told Fortune. “Could we have done more? That’s a possibility we’re examining, but the situation was escalating by the day.” 

Now his entire town is on lockdown, along with the rest of the country. What the coronavirus means for the next ski season and establishments like Kitzloch are luxuries he couldn’t consider yet.

“First we have to defeat the virus, then we can think about what,” he said. “But we live from tourism. Without it, no one could make a living, and Ischgl would vanish.” 

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