Austria could be liable for at least €5 million over failures to warn tourists and shut down the ski resort of Ischgl at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, a lawyer leading a class action over the incident has said.
The popular skiing destination, which receives 500,000 visitors every season, has been dubbed the ground zero of Europe’s coronavirus outbreak after thousands of tourists left the Covid-19 hotspot to bring infections to countries across the continent and around the world in mid-March.
Dr Peter Kolba, who is now leading a class action against authorities in Tyrol province, the southern Austrian region that administers Ischgl and the Austrian government over their failings, said authorities are liable for at least €5 million.
"The responsibility of the local authorities, we think, is very visible," Dr Kolba told The National. "It had made very big mistakes in this crisis."
So far, Dr Kolba and his associates at Austrian Consumer Protection Association (VSV) have received 5,000 responses to their online call for participants in the class action. At least 14 deaths from Covid-19 have been linked to the case.
The vast majority of illnesses concern Ischgl but other holiday destinations in the region like Paznauntal and St Anton have been included.
The majority of these responses have come from German nationals but virtually every country in Europe is represented on the list. Respondents as far away as Singapore, the United States and Israel have also joined the calls for compensation.
The case hinges on critical days at the end of February and the beginning of March when the Tyrol government is accused of failing to react quickly enough to the coronavirus outbreak in Ischgl.
On March 7 a bar tender in the resort tested positive for Covid-19. However, officials failed to close the bar for two days. Even earlier on March 5, Austrian authorities were alerted that Icelandic tourists that had returned from the village had contracted the disease. The resort itself and surrounding Paznaun valley was not closed until March 13 at which point its guests were allowed to disperse across the world carrying the virus with them.
The reaction of the Tyrol government was far more robust just over a week earlier when a hotel worker in Innsbruck tested positive for the disease on February 25. The hotel was immediately shut for two days while other employees were tested.
Dr Kolba said the motivation for keeping Ischcgl open was clear. “If you compare this with the 25 of February you have only one reason, the reason is economic,” he said. “They knew the season will end earlier and the tried to earn money day by day because of economic reasons.”
Derek Wainwright, a British holiday maker from Burton upon Trent, has joined the class action after visiting Ischgl during those critical days at the beginning of March. He and the three other members of his party all believe they contracted Covid-19 in the ski resort.
“There was nothing warning us about anything. No signs in the tourist information office, no signs on the slopes, nothing telling us to socially distance, nothing,” he said.
Mr Wainwright and his friends arrived in Ischgl on March 7 where they discovered packed venues and a vibrant apres ski atmosphere at the resort. Looking back, he said it was strange to think about the crowded spaces. “It was like the old days of standing on the football terrace. It was that full,” he explained this situation remained the same for three days.\ff
As authorities debated the closing of the resort, the Briton explained it was clear Covid-19 was working its way through the inhabitants. His own Swedish ski instructor was ill with the disease.
Eventually the party of four decided to return home, not because of official warnings but because it was clear Ischgl had become a hotspot for the coronavirus. “By then we just wanted to get home and get out of there. The place was shutting down. Everybody's talking about it. It's a hotspot,” he said.
The group returned home via Munich and Birmingham before returning to their homes in the midlands. One of the group tested positive for Covid-19 shortly afterwards and another experienced symptoms so severe in self-isolation that he had to be attended by paramedics at home. Mr Wainwright and the fourth member of the group believe they experienced only mild symptoms.
The Tyrol regional government did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the class action. However, in the past the local administrative body and Tyrol’s governor, Gunther Platter, have said they were dealing with an “exceptional situation” and had prioritised “management of the crisis”.
Mr Platter has insisted authorities took "very quick" and "very radical" decisions to contain the virus.