Austrian courts face fallout from spread of virus in ski resorts

Vienna (AFP)

The last time Sieglinde Schopf kissed Hannes, her husband of almost 50 years, was before he got on a train to go skiing in Austria’s famous Alpine province of Tyrol last March.

Weeks later, in April, the 72-year-old man, infected with coronavirus, died alone, clinging to a hospital bed.

“My whole world has shattered into pieces,” says Schopf, who had convinced her husband to travel to Ischgl, which ended up becoming one of the coronavirus hotspots in Europe last year.

“I can’t forgive myself, because in the end, I sent him to his death.”

A year later, his is one of 10 lawsuits brought by plaintiffs from Austria and Germany seeking compensation, alleging that Austrian authorities failed to respond quickly enough to the coronavirus outbreaks in Ischgl and the rest of the world. other stations.

More than 6,000 people from 45 countries say they were infected – the majority of them in Ischgl – where unintentional tourists continued to ski, drink and party, as the virus spread, according to the Austrian association of consumer rights VSV, which collects the complaints.

– “ Wide spectrum ” of combinations –

Schopf believes her husband, a retired journalist and avid ski enthusiast since childhood, caught the virus during the panicked bus evacuation, crowded with other tourists who had been sneezing and coughing for three hours.

When the Austrian called her husband on March 13 to tell him that Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had just announced Ischgl’s quarantine, “they were still on the ski slopes,” she told the ‘AFP.

The widow is currently suing the Republic of Austria for 100,000 euros ($ 120,000) for the death of her husband.

Others are asking for tens of thousands of euros in compensation for contracting the virus in ski resorts.

The cases are expected to be heard from September, with the initial trial dates in April being postponed due to the latest Covid-19 lockdown, according to VSV.

Other lawsuits are also underway, including by plaintiffs from Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Switzerland, Peter Kolba, head of VSV, told AFP.

“It’s a very broad spectrum, ranging from deaths to cases of long Covid” with permanent lung damage, Kolba said.

Of the 6,000 who complained to the VSV about contracting the virus, five percent suffer from long-lasting symptoms of Covid, including headaches, sleep disturbances and shortness of breath. A total of 32 people died.

An independent expert commission to investigate the epidemic wrote in its report published in October that local authorities “reacted too late” and made “serious miscalculations” after Icelandic authorities alerted them on March 5 that several people had tested positive upon their return to the island. State.

From March 8, the day after a barman in Ischgl tested positive for Covid-19, “a correct assessment should have led to the closure of bars, the stopping of ski lifts and orderly management departures “of tourists from Ischgl, the report said. .

Instead, skiing and partying continued until March 13.

Authorities have denied acting too slowly.

Four officials, including the mayor of Ischgl, Werner Kurz, are the subject of an investigation by the prosecutor’s office in the Tyrolean capital, Innsbruck, in connection with the epidemic.

– Lesson learned ‘-

Reestablishing Ischgl’s reputation has since been paramount for Andreas Steibl, the head of the local tourism association, which the independent investigation absolved from responsibility for last year’s outbreak.

“For us, the number one priority is now health, because we have learned from the experience of last year,” Steibl told AFP.

A regional health authority official confirmed that Ischgl has had “virtually no cases” of Covid-19 since the lockdown a year ago.

With the winter season lost due to the pandemic, the village of some 1,500 inhabitants which lives almost entirely on tourism hopes to fill its hotels and restaurants during the next summer.

Last year, tourists from all over Europe have already visited the Austrian Alps – many have chosen this option rather than flying to the usual destinations on the Greek or Spanish islands.

A couple in their 80s, the Kaisers, who traveled on a tour bus from Leipzig, Germany last July, recounted how their friends called them “crazy” for booking their summer vacation in Ischgl.

But Manfred Kaiser, 84, said they felt especially safe in Ischgl because “everyone here is careful now”.

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