Most of their European neighbors can only dream of snow-covered slopes while enduring holiday exclusions, but Austrians are stuck parking lots and lifts in the ski area, defying the rules of social distance as they drive to the runs of their alpine country.
Austrians’ relationship with skiing is deeply emotional. For many, it is a birthright and national pastime, as more than half of their country is mountainous, and they are proud of the Austrian role in the development of the sport. So, despite a third national exclusion that went into effect on Saturday, the country decided that ski resorts could remain open, but only to residents of Austria.
Skiers have to wear medical-quality masks while riding in the lifts and gondolas, but calls to social distance are useless. The ski season, which began a day before Christmas, led to traffic jams and long, busy lifts, prompting police to warn people to stay home and local authorities to call for security reinforcements on Monday at some resorts.
But for some skiers, the experience of a sunny afternoon on the slopes of the Alps – amid a blockade, after months of living in the coronavirus pandemic – felt like an illegal pleasure.
“I know it’s a total madness to lock everything but the ski hills in a lock,” said Fabian Hasler, a 20-year-old student from Graz, who has been skiing since childhood and Sunday in the Tauplitz resort in Styria. east of Salzburg. “But as a passionate skier, this little bit of normalcy was like a shot of heroin to me.”
Yet videos of skiers huddled together while waiting for lifts, packing between cars in parking lots and arriving all the way to the lifts, drew criticism from neighbors of the European Union in Austria, whose ski hills remain closed. It also raised eyebrows among Austrians who accelerated the importance of their leaders on the right side of a snow mountain.
“Since yesterday and until January 18, we are not allowed to visit the grandparents,” Armin Wolf, who anchors the main broadcast of the Austrian ORF public television, wrote on Twitter, along with a photo of people tightly packed together is. the weekend at a ski resort.
Austria has gone back and forth with its exclusions and closed most of public life in the spring, but only to reopen it in the summer in hopes of saving some tourism revenue by welcoming Europeans to the mountains want to escape. In mid-November, the country closed again in an effort to reduce rising infection numbers and allow for a more relaxed atmosphere during the Christmas holidays.
But new infections, hospitalizations and deaths remained higher than in April, which is why the government decided to close public life after Christmas.
Managers of ski slopes and outdoor skating rinks worked hard to allow their sports to be allowed during the exclusion.
“It simply came to our notice then. “There have always been exceptions that allow people to play sports,” Karl Nehammer, Austria’s interior minister, told Kronen Zeitung’s tabloid. “And just like we’re going to run here in Vienna, people are going to ski in the west.”
Among the worst overcrowding were ski areas that could be easily reached from urban areas, including Vienna, that people fled to the slopes. Police reports on blocked streets and images of crowded elevators prompted local leaders to call Monday for increased safety and social distance strategies.
“Based on our experience, the security plans of the ski areas will be adjusted to ensure social distance, even with a large number of skiers and other guests,” said Markus Achleitner, Minister of Tourism in Upper Austria.
“All those responsible are working to provide their guests with the most relaxing and safe skiing experience,” said Mr. Achleitner said. “But I ask everyone to keep their distance while they wait in line and wear their masks.”
German media were quick to spot the chaotic start of Austria’s ski season, with reminders that the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl was sowing outbreaks in Europe last winter. The news weekly Focus predicts “Ischgl 2.0”, while Der Spiegel asks: “Nothing learned from Ischgl?”
Although the spread in Ischgl has been linked to pubs and parties in the resort, skiers from Britain, Iceland, the United States and other countries did not become infected with their virus again in February and March to accelerate its spread. It remains a particularly sensitive subject in Germany, where hundreds of cases have been traced to the resort.
Yet the roads leading to West Germany were very similar to those of Austria, with cars backed for miles. Although the lifts did not run and all services, including toilets, remained closed, skiers who wanted to ride on a snowy slope turned up in record numbers
“Please do not come here,” the Winterberg ski resort said in a message on its Facebook page, asking people to stay home or turn around if they were already on their way.
In early December, France, Italy and Germany all agreed to keep their ski resorts closed during the holidays in an effort to slow down the pandemic. But Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria fought hard for a widely cherished and economically necessary industry.
After weeks of heated debate within the European Union, Mr. Kurz found a compromise to keep ski slopes open but tourists outside. Hotels and restaurants remain closed and a ten-day quarantine requirement is imposed on anyone entering the country in an effort to discourage weekenders and day-trippers, especially from Germany.
Like Austria, Switzerland, which is not an EU member, has also decided to leave its ski resorts open, despite a much higher infection rate than most of its neighbors, including Austria.
But after new, more transmissible coronavirus variants emerged in Britain and South Africa, the Swiss decided on 20 December to cease all fighting from the two countries and demand that anyone who had arrived there since 14 December had to spend days in quarantine.
While some skiers decided to pack up immediately and return, others stayed in their Swiss hotel rooms or rentals, especially in the Verbier ski resort, which is popular with British tourists.
On Sunday, reports spread through news media that hundreds of British tourists had defied the isolation orders and skipped the country in the dark of night, possibly crossing nearby borders with France and Italy. Hotels realized what was happening when they found pristine breakfasts outside the doors of quarantined guests.
‘It was a big problem – also for us – to receive information when you just arrived that you had to stay in your room. I can understand that anyone will find any possibility to go home, ”said Simon Wiget, director of tourism in Verbier. But he said he had no information on how many people had left the country and how they would have done so.
“Normally they could not travel unless they had done their quarantine,” he said in a phone call. “They could not fly back, but it is possible that they found a solution, perhaps on the highway.”
Jean-Marc Sandoz, the communications representative of the Bagnes municipality, part of the large Verbier region, said he also did not have exact numbers or details on the number of tourists that may be left.
“It is possible that some of them have quarantined,” he said. Sandoz said. “They were not prisoners.”