Austrian prosecutors closed an 18-month investigation into the coronavirus outbreak in the Ischgl ski resort in early 2020 – one of the pandemic’s first super-distributor events in Europe.
The Innsbruck public prosecutor has ended his criminal investigation into the outbreak without any charges of trespassing against the authorities in Ischgl, it said in a statement on Wednesday.
The finding comes as little relief for hoteliers and business owners in Austria crisis-stricken ski regions. As the country tackles its worst wave of Covid-19 infections, it faces delays in reopening the resorts and uncertainty over whether foreign visitors will be allowed.
Since Monday, Austria has been in a national closure again as it struggles to combat the recovery in Covid cases, and the government is preparing compulsory vaccination plans from early next year. Ischgl would open its elevators completely on Thursday, with a gala weekend of celebrations planned to mark the return after the 2020-21 season was canceled.
Ischgl became an adverb to the ski industry’s difficulties during the pandemic.
The village, known for its turbulent après-ski scene, became a hotbed for the virus as its pubs and slopes remained open despite increasing numbers of people becoming ill in February and March 2020. This led to a spate of infections outside Austria’s borders as holidaymakers returned from the slopes.
Hundreds of the earliest infections in Germany have been detected in the small town in Austria’s western Tyrol region. Icelandic epidemiologists said Ischgl was the only source of their country’s first wave of infections. Half of Norway’s initial series of cases came from the slopes, as did one third of those in Denmark and one sixth of those in Sweden, according to health officials in those countries.
Research by epidemiologists at the University of Innsbruck, which tested 80 percent of the population in Ischgl, found that 45 percent of residents contracted coronavirus in the first wave of the pandemic, the highest level of head-on infection detected in any study at that point worldwide.
“There is no evidence for that. [authorities] was guilty of doing something, or refraining from doing so, which would have led to an increase in the risk of infections, ”the Innsbruck prosecutor said on Wednesday.
The investigation looked at allegations that officials – including the district governor and Ischgl’s mayor – had insisted on keeping the resort’s facilities open amid concerns about the economic impact of restricting the tourist season. Skiing is a big business in Austria: winter sports contribute a roughly equal share to the economy as car manufacturing in Germany, according to research by the Dutch bank ING.
The prosecutor said he reviewed more than 15,000 pages of evidence and conducted 27 interviews. The investigation was completed in May, but has only just been reviewed by senior prosecuting authorities and the Austrian Ministry of Justice.
A previous government inquiry into events at Ischgl found that officials had managed the outbreak poorly. Ski lifts should have been closed earlier, it was concluded, and communication with tourists was chaotic.
A separate civil lawsuit against Ischgl authorities, backed by Austria’s consumer protection association, continues in Vienna.
Austria on Wednesday reported an average of seven days of 155 new Covid cases per 100,000 inhabitants, Europe’s second highest infection rate, according to Johns Hopkins University. About 30 percent of the population still does not have receive their first vaccine.