Austrian authorities face possible class action over COVID-19 outbreak at ski resort

Ischgl, Austria  - 6 February 2020: View of a direction post made up skis which is beside the main cable car station above Ischgl. Taken in late afternoon as the sun was lowering. The Ischgl - Samnaun ski area straddles Austria and Switzerland.

Authorities in the Austrian state of Tyrol are facing a potential class-action lawsuit over their handling of a COVID-19 outbreak at the popular ski resort of Ischgl.

According to TRT World, at least 4,000 tourists affected by COVID-19 have put their names to the report, led by the Verbraucherschutzverein VSV (Consumer Protection Association), accusing local authorities of reacting far too slowly to the outbreak across the state.

More than 600 infections are said to be linked to the resort and its surrounding area, which is famous for its renewed nightlife of après ski bars, concerts and VIP visitors including the likes of Naomi Campbell, Paris Hilton and Bill Clinton in previous years.

“The global coronavirus pandemic qualifies as force majeure and nobody can be held responsible for any damage suffered,” the Consumer Protection Association said on its website.

“However, keeping ski resorts open, even though authorities knew or should have known of a threat of mass infection, is certainly a reason to consider claims for damages.

“[We have] therefore submitted a description of the facts to the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Vienna against the Tyrolean authorities,” it said.

According to the association, tourists who contracted the novel virus shortly after visiting Ischgl, Paznauntal, Saint Anton am Arlberg, Sölden or Zillertal on 5 March 2020 or later, were eligible for its support.

“The public prosecutor will have to examine whether something went wrong and if so, what exactly went wrong.”

The association told CNN it had filed a report with the public prosecutor’s office in Innsbruck last week, which the prosecutor confirmed had been received. Police have reportedly begun investigating.

At this stage, the report is not being considered an official class-action lawsuit, despite being described as such on the association’s website.

It may become “a claim for damages against the Republic of Austria”, depending on the findings of the investigation, Consumer Protection Association founder and president Dr Peter Kolba told TRT World.

Credit: iStock.com/NataliPopova

It comes after official warnings, issued by the Icelandic government on 4 March after several of its nationals were infected with COVID-19 while in Ischgl, did not prompt the immediate closure of the resort.

Ischgl was instead allowed to remain open for another nine days before being fully quarantined on 13 March, following resort-wide tests that were prompted by the Icelandic warning, which revealed positive cases of COVID-19 in staff, according to CNN.

The entire Paznaun valley of Tyrol was quarantined that day, with the winter season officially declared over by Tyrolean government. Austria later imposed a quarantine of the entire alpine region of Tyrol, impacting three-quarters of a million people in 279 towns.

In a statement to the outlet late last month, the public prosecutor’s office in Innsbruck city said it had commissioned the Tyrol Criminal Police Office to conduct “investigations on suspicion of negligent endangerment of people by communicable diseases”.

The prosecutor’s office further added that it was looking into the possibility that a catering company did not report an employee’s positive COVID-19 test at the end of February.

To date, the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety has reported more than 600 infections linked to Ischgl resort and its surroundings, an area considered the source of Austria’s biggest cluster of COVID-19 cases.

In addition, possibly twice as many infections are suspected of being abroad after originating there.

According to The New York Times, hundreds of tourists from across Europe, including Germany, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, were infected at Ischgl.

As of 6 April, the Austrian Ministry of Health has reported 12,008 confirmed cases of COVID-19. As many as 220 people have died from the virus, and 3,463 have recovered.

Featured image: Ischgl direction post (iStock.com/Bob Douglas)

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