ISCHGL, Austria – Barely an hour to the south in Italy, a nationwide lockdown had been imposed as coronavirus patients clogged hospitals and morgues overflowed. But the après-ski bars of the Austrian Alps were still packed with patrons.
Drawn by the famed ski runs that surround the resorts of St. Anton and Ischgl, the late winter crowds included American, German, British, Dutch, Danish and French tourists.
More than 5,000 of them – including 28 from the United States – now are seeking to join a class action that will accuse Austrian authorities of intentionally staying silent about the outbreak in the resort villages. By withholding information, they believe, authorities decided that the euros being spent in local bars and hotels were more important than visitors’ health.
“It’s an absolute gold mine, so keeping it open even one extra day is going to generate a lot of money,” said 61-year-old Paul Wright of Derby, England, who arrived in Ischgl in early March and started feeling ill several days later. “This was about greed.”
Questions about what officials knew and when they knew it are also central to a criminal proceeding prompted by complaints from a Viennese law firm and the Austrian Consumer Protection Association, the VSV. The latter named high-ranking politicians, mayors, hotel owners and powerful representatives of the ski industry, alleging they put economic interests first despite the escalating health risks. According to the prosecutor leading the investigation, more than 330 tourists have asked to be part of the complaints.
“They had good reasons to cover this up, and those reasons are financial,” VSV leader Peter Kolba said.
A quarter of all jobs depend on tourism in this part of Austria, a historic, mountainous region of breathtaking beauty. Ischgl, population 1,600, lures about half a million travelers each winter, making it one of the most popular destinations in the Alps. St. Anton welcomes a quarter-million visitors.
Ischgl’s first case of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, was confirmed on March 7. The patient was a barkeeper.
The next day, as Wright and thousands of other skiers sped down the slopes, the Tyrol state medical authority posted a statement on its website announcing the case. “Transmission of the virus onto the guests of the bar is, from a medical point of view, rather unlikely,” the statement said.
Herbert Forster, director of the office that oversees the medical authority, noted recently that doctors did not know at that point just how easily infection could spread. And while he denied economic considerations came into play, he conceded officials could have done a better job at alerting tourists.
There were few additional details and no official warnings over the next several days. The evening-into-late-night partying continued.
“I can’t emphasize it enough,” said Wright, who retreated to his hotel room with a fever, severe headache and fatigue and stayed in bed for the next 36 hours. “If they knew of anything, that was suppressed.” Back in England, his own test came back positive.
He and other British and U.S. tourists interviewed by The Washington Post say they would have canceled their trips if information about an increasing number of cases had been made public. The Tregidgo family of New York City – two parents and three adult children who had been looking forward to their first vacation together in a decade – is among them.
“If you’re told there’s a high rate of infections and you choose to go, then that’s on you,” said mother Barbara, a medical health clinician. “But we were told there’s no cases.”
Before the Tregidgos arrived in St. Anton on March 8, only China, Iran, South Korea and northern Italy had been declared danger zones by U.S. officials. The family says they checked an official Tyrol website that stated there was no risk of coronavirus. They were unaware that shortly before the barkeeper’s diagnosis, Icelandic officials had warned Austria of likely transmission within Ischgl. They even called their hotel for final reassurance. They said a receptionist told them the snow was great and everything was all right.
A day after checking in, they realized it was not. Their 22-year-old local guide had a bad cough. Over the next few days, their massage appointments were canceled because the therapist was home sick. Bars were ordered to limit patrons to try to reduce potential exposure.
The Tregidgos decided to fly home early, just before President Donald Trump’s travel ban left thousands of Americans stranded in Europe. Three family members subsequently tested positive for the virus. Though they feel lucky for suffering only mild symptoms, they’d like the legal proceedings to establish accountability. They’d also appreciate some compensation for their additional travel costs.
Prosecutor Hansjörg Mayr said he would not discuss details of the criminal proceedings until he has reviewed a 1,000-page report by the State Office of Criminal Investigations, which includes written statements, interviews and documents. Under Austrian law, criminal cases usually precede lawsuits brought by individuals.
The class action is likely to hinge “on whether there were culpable, unlawful actions by the authorities,” said Heinz Mayer, former dean of the faculty of law at the University of Vienna. “That seems to be the case.”
One of the travelers who contacted the VSV is a man from New Jersey who said he passed the virus to his father. His parent died less than three weeks later of covid-19. Under the heading for “damages incurred” on the consumer association’s registry, the man wrote: “I don’t know how to put a human life into financial terms.”
The full extent of infection that traces to Austria’s Alps might never be known. German officials estimate that tourists from their country alone account for more than 3,700 cases. In one group of 50 Americans, traveling together from Massachusetts, Colorado, Arkansas and Texas, more than half got sick. Tests showed at least one third had covid-19.
Ischgl’s mayor, its tourism officials and representatives of a major ski lift all declined to be interviewed. Among the few locals willing to talk was Bernhard Zangerl, whose family acquired the rustic Kitzloch bar last fall. It is among the village’s après-ski jewels, a lively place that can fit about 200 people. It is where the coronavirus-positive barkeeper worked.
People in Ischgl experienced flu-like symptoms in February, Zangerl maintains, which was hardly unusual given that it was winter. He thinks it is “nonsense” that others still consider his employee was patient zero, and he welcomes the criminal proceeding.
“It’s good that there is a lawsuit, because then it will be clear which of the authorities mishandled information,” he said. His entire family, including his grandfather and pregnant sister, and all of Kitzloch’s staff contracted the disease.
On March 13, the Austrian government acknowledged the covid-19 outbreaks in three Tyrolean resort villages. The announcement came at 2 p.m. Quarantines would take effect within an hour, authorities said. Nobody would be allowed in or out of the hotspot areas. The restrictions lasted until late April.
Forster, who headed the emergency response team that took over at that point, defends the handling of the situation and mass departures. He says he simply did not see any alternative.
“What do you think happens when you put 30,000 people under quarantine in a valley?” he asked. “Tourists who are not even allowed to ski anymore?”
Everyone fled who could. And from Ischgl, the 17-mile ride out of the containment zone turned into a seven-hour traffic ordeal.
It was an exodus on public buses, crammed with tourists and coronavirus.
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Miranda Green in Los Angeles contributed to this report.