Austrian lockdown covers schools and stores, but not ski hills

By Melissa Eddy

Most of their European neighbors can only dream of snow-covered slopes while they endure holiday lockdowns, but Austrians are jamming ski resort parking lots and lift lines, defying social distancing rules as they take to the runs of their alpine country.

Austrians’ relationship to skiing is deeply emotional. For many it is a birthright and national pastime, given that more than half of their country is mountainous, and they take pride in the Austrian role in developing the sport. So despite a third national lockdown that took effect Saturday, the country decided that ski resorts could remain open, but only for residents of Austria.

Skiers are required to wear medical-grade masks while in line for and riding on the lifts and gondolas, but calls for social distancing have been futile. The ski season that began the day before Christmas has led to traffic jams and long, crowded lift lines, prompting the police to issue warnings for people to stay home and local authorities to call on Monday for security reinforcements at some resorts.

But to some skiers, the experience of spending a sunny afternoon on the slopes of the Alps — in the midst of a lockdown, after months of life in the coronavirus pandemic — felt like an illicit pleasure.

“I know that it is complete insanity to close everything except the ski hills in a lockdown,” said Fabian Hasler, a 20-year-old student from Graz, who has been skiing since childhood and spent Sunday at the Tauplitz resort in Styria, east of Salzburg. “But as a passionate skier, for me this bit of normalcy was like a shot of heroin.”

Yet videos of skiers jammed together while waiting for lifts, packed between cars in parking lots and making their way up to the lift lines drew criticism among Austria’s European Union neighbors, whose ski hills remained closed. It also raised eyebrows among Austrians who questioned the importance their leaders place on the right to speed down a snowy mountainside.

“Since yesterday and until Jan. 18, we are not allowed to visit the grandparents,” Armin Wolf, who anchors the main evening news broadcast of Austria’s ORF public television, wrote on Twitter, along with a picture of people packed tightly together in line at a ski resort over the weekend.

Austria has gone back and forth on its lockdowns, largely closing down all of public life in the spring, only to open it again in the summer in hopes of salvaging some tourism revenue by welcoming Europeans seeking an escape to the mountains. In mid-November, the country closed down again in an effort to bring down soaring infection numbers and allow for a more relaxed atmosphere over the Christmas holiday.

But new infections, hospitalizations and deaths remained higher than at their peak in April, so the government decided to shut down public life after Christmas.

Operators of ski slopes and outdoor skating rinks lobbied hard for their sports to be permitted during the lockdown.

“We have to see it in the full context. There have always been exceptions allowing for people to practice sports,” Karl Nehammer, Austria’s interior minister, told the Kronen Zeitung tabloid. “And just like we go running here in Vienna, people in the west go skiing.”

Some of the worst overcrowding has been at ski areas easily reached from urban areas, including Vienna, that people have fled for the slopes. Police reports of blocked streets and images of packed lift lines prompted local leaders to call on Monday for increased security and strategies for social distancing.

“Based on our experience, the security plans of the ski areas will be adapted to ensure social distancing even with a large flow of skiers and other guests,” said Markus Achleitner, the minister of tourism in Upper Austria.

“All those responsible are working to be able to offer their guests the most relaxing and safe ski experience,” Achleitner said. “But I ask everyone to keep their distance while waiting in line, and wear their masks.”

German media were quick to pick up on the chaotic start of Austria’s ski season, with reminders that the Austrian ski resort Ischgl had seeded outbreaks across Europe last winter. The news weekly Focus predicted “Ischgl 2.0,” while Der Spiegel asked, “Nothing learned from Ischgl?”

While the spreading in Ischgl has been linked to the bars and after-hours partying in the resort, not the slopes, skiers from Britain, Iceland, the United States and other countries returned from their ski vacations in February and March infected with the virus, accelerating its spread. It remains an especially sensitive subject in Germany, where hundreds of cases were traced to the resort.

Yet the roads leading to ski areas in western Germany looked much like those in Austria this weekend, with cars backed up for miles. Though the lifts were not running and all of the services, including toilets, remained closed, skiers eager for a ride down a snowy slope turned up in record numbers

“Please don’t come here,” the Winterberg ski resort said in a post on its Facebook page, pleading with people to stay home or, if they were already on the road, to turn around.

In early December, France, Italy and Germany all agreed to keep their ski areas closed over the holidays in an effort to slow the pandemic. But Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria fought hard for a widely cherished and economically vital industry.

After weeks of heated debate within the European Union, Kurz found a compromise in keeping ski slopes open, but tourists out. Hotels and restaurants remain closed and a 10-day quarantine requirement was imposed on anyone entering the country from abroad, 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 allow its ski resorts to remain open, despite having 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 Dec. 20 to stop all fights from those two countries and require anyone who had arrived from there since Dec. 14 to spend 10 days in quarantine.

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