6,000 infections: How Austria’s courts are facing fallout from Covid spread in ski resorts

The last time Sieglinde Schopf hugged Hannes, her husband of almost 50 years, was before he boarded a train to go skiing in Austria's popular Alpine province of Tyrol last March.

Skiers use a ski lift in Austria (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)
Skiing was allowed in Austria in 2021 even during lockdown (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

A few weeks later, in April, the 72-year-old, infected with coronavirus, died alone, hooked up to a hospital bed.

“My entire world shattered into pieces,” says Schopf, who had convinced her husband to go to Ischgl, which ended up becoming one of Europe’s coronavirus hotspots last year.

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

READ MORE: Post-ski partying dropped at Austrian resort at centre of pandemic

Plaintiffs seek compensation over coronavirus outbreak

Now a year later, hers is one of 10 lawsuits filed by plaintiffs from Austria and Germany who seek compensation, alleging that Austrian authorities failed to respond quickly enough to coronavirus outbreaks in Ischgl and other resorts.

More than 6,000 people from 45 countries claim they got infected — the majority of them in Ischgl — where unwitting tourists continued to ski, drink and party, while the virus was spreading, according to Austrian consumer rights association VSV, which is collecting the complaints.

Tourists were evacuated on ‘crammed bus’ filled with people ‘coughing and sneezing’

Schopf believes that her husband, a retired journalist and avid skier since his childhood, caught the virus during the panicked evacuation by bus, crammed with other tourists who were sneezing and coughing for three hours.

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

The widow is now suing the Republic of Austria for 100,000 euros over her husband’s death.

Others are seeking tens of thousands of euros in compensation over contracting the virus in the ski resorts.

Cases heard in September

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

Other lawsuits are also in the pipeline, including by plaintiffs from Belgium, the Netherlands, the UK and Switzerland, VSV head Peter Kolba told AFP. “It’s a very broad spectrum, from deaths to cases of long Covid” with permanent lung damage, he said. In total, 32 people have died.

Local officials ‘acted too late’ according to report

An independent commission of experts tasked with investigating the outbreak wrote in its report published in October that local officials “reacted too late” and made “serious miscalculations” after authorities in Iceland alerted
them on March 5th that several people tested positive upon returning to the island state.

READ MORE: Austria’s Ischgl ski resort ‘mishandled coronavirus outbreak’

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

Instead, skiing and partying continued until March 13th.

Authorities have denied that they acted too slowly. However, four officials, including Ischgl’s Mayor Werner Kurz, are under investigation by the public prosecutor’s office in Innsbruck in relation to the outbreak.

READ MORE: Austria: Ischgl residents show long-term coronavirus immunity

 Lesson ‘learned’ 

Restoring Ischgl’s reputation has since been paramount to Andreas Steibl, the head of the local tourism association, which the independent investigation absolved of blame over last year’s outbreak.

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

‘Practically no cases’ of Covid-19 in Ischgl since the lockdown in 2020

An official with the regional health authority confirmed that Ischgl had “practically no cases” of Covid-19 since the lockdown a year ago.

With the winter season lost to the pandemic, the village of some 1,500 inhabitants which lives almost entirely off tourism hopes to fill its hotels and restaurants over the upcoming summer.

Last year, tourists from across Europe already flocked to the Austrian Alps .

One couple in their 80s, the Kaisers, who travelled by tour bus from Leipzig, Germany, last July, recounted how their friends had 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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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.