Documents suggest virus was downplayed at Austria resort

Official communications and minutes of meetings seen by AFP suggest authorities in the Austrian state of Tyrol downplayed a notorious coronavirus outbreak in one of its ski resorts in March.

Ischgl, known for its lively apres-ski scene, was at the centre of an outbreak of the coronavirus in Tyrol in which more than 6,000 tourists from 45 countries say they became infected.

State officials have repeatedly said that no mistakes were made in handling the outbreak in Ischgl, one of Austria’s most lucrative and prestigious ski resorts, and that authorities acted correctly according to the information they had at the time.

The public prosecutor’s department in Tyrol is investigating the events at the resort and has declined to comment publicly on the probe.

However, AFP has seen documents regarding the outbreak which run to thousands of pages of messages and emails between officials as well as minutes of meetings.

One of the most damning passages concerns Ischgl’s Kitzloch bar.

On March 7, a bartender there tested positive for the virus, making him the first case to be confirmed at the resort.

The next morning, Anita Luckner-Hornischer, an official with the Tyrol medical authority, is quoted in the minutes of the state’s crisis management team as saying: “Probably we can expect many cases in connection with the bar.”

However, just hours afterwards the state of Tyrol sent out a press release with a different message through its public relations department, which had taken over all of the state’s communications relating to the virus.

“A transmission of the virus onto the guests of the bar is, from a medical point of view, rather unlikely,” Luckner-Hornischer is quoted as saying in the press release.

As in other apres-ski bars in the tiny Alpine village where about 10,000 tourists were staying at the time, Kitzloch was so crammed that staff blew whistles to make their way through the crowds, passing tourists playing games in which they spat ping pong balls out of their mouths into other guests’ drinks.

The bar was only closed once all Kitzloch staff had tested positive for the virus, but elsewhere in the village, thousands of unwitting tourists continued skiing and partying. 

– ‘Keep a low profile’ –

Also in early March, Icelandic medical authorities had been the first to warn their Austrian counterparts of an outbreak, pointing to more than a dozen tourists who tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return from skiing and partying in Ischgl. 

The documents seen by AFP show that local officials seized on comments made by two of the tourists who said they could possibly have contracted the virus on their flight back to Iceland.

In one email to a senior Tyrol state official, district chief Markus Maass said that the statement by the two tourists “would be important for the press release by the public relations department if applicable”. 

“With that, we’d get Ischgl out of the line of fire,” Maass wrote.

An official press release from the state government on March 5 was indeed entitled: “Icelandic guests in the Tyrol Oberland region most likely contracted coronavirus on their return flight”.

Further material in the documents show how concerned officials were about the virus’s impact on Tyrol’s reputation.

Another email written after the first warnings from Icelandic authorities shows Maass’s reaction to officials sharing information about infections elsewhere in the state.

“We’re trying to keep a low profile,” Maass writes in the message to the state government.

Once the number of confirmed cases in Ischgl began to rise dramatically, the federal government announced a full lockdown of the entire valley, leaving tourists just a couple of hours to evacuate on March 13 — six days after the Kitzloch bartender tested positive.

The documents seen by AFP include official letters informing four individuals, including Maass and Ischgl’s mayor Werner Kurz, that they are being investigated for wilfully or negligently endangering people through a contagious disease.

Asked about the latest revelations, the Tyrol state government refused to comment to Austrian media on Friday.

Four individuals also brought civil suits in Vienna over the outbreak last month, including the family of a man who died from Covid-19, which he allegedly contracted in Ischgl.

by Denise HRUBY