In Switzerland, some resorts are already in the process of reopening.
In contrast, the governments of France, Italy and Germany are eyeing an E.U.-wide closure of ski facilities until at least early January — usually one of the busiest periods that includes the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Officials in those three countries fear that if some E.U. member states keep their slopes open, tourists could head there instead and accelerate the spread of the virus.
Looming over the upcoming winter season is the coronavirus outbreak in the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl in February and March, which has been linked to more than 6,000 infections in almost 50 nations, at a time when many countries had yet to confirm their first cases.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday became the latest leader to call for a coordinated shutdown of skiing resorts, though she acknowledged that the initiative appeared bound to fail.
“Based on the Austrian announcements, it unfortunately doesn’t look as if this can be easily achieved,” Merkel told parliament.
The European Union has said it is not responsible for negotiating or enforcing a shutdown, and Switzerland is not even a member, meaning it would not be bound by an agreement within the bloc.
For large European economies such as Germany or France, the risks of ski resorts becoming coronavirus hot spots appear to outweigh the economic benefits of reopening them quickly. But similar shutdowns would probably take a heavier toll in Austria and parts of Switzerland, whose economies are more dependent on the winter sports season.
In Austria, revenue from recreational winter sports is estimated to account for between 4 and 5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. In the nation of almost 9 million people, more than 230,000 jobs are estimated to depend on it.
“If the E.U. does in fact force skiing areas to stay closed, that will mean costs of up to 2 billion euros [$2.38 billion]. If that is what the E.U. really wants, it will also have to pay for it,” Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Bluemel said, according to Reuters.
Austria’s government has yet to decide when and to what extent it will lift lockdown restrictions, but top officials have suggested that the risks of catching the coronavirus while skiing are small, suggesting that ski resorts have a reasonable chance of being able to reopen soon.
“When somebody uses a ski lift, it’s similar to someone being on public transport,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said Wednesday.
Austrian Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger praised “expansive safety measures” that had been implemented at ski resorts, including the closure of après-ski bars to prevent crowds from mingling indoors.
“You don’t catch the virus on the ski slope but rather at the party afterward,” Köstinger said. “That’s what we want to avoid.”
In Switzerland, the canton of Valais — a ski resort stronghold — echoed those reassurances. “Closing is simply not an option,” said Christophe Darbellay, the canton’s president.
Outside of Austria and Switzerland, however, concerns are mounting that officials in both countries are playing down the risks.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said the spread of the virus in ski resorts could become “uncontrollable,” and the premier of the German federal state of Bavaria, Markus Soeder, warned that it could “thwart all the efforts made by the population at large.”
Some resorts in Europe are already suffering under a high caseload, despite businesses and facilities there having remained closed. The French department of Haute-Savoie recently reported the highest per capita number of new cases in the country.
Meanwhile, Austria reported 359 new coronavirus infections per 100,000 inhabitants over the last seven days, compared with 333 in the United States. Switzerland confirmed 330 new cases per 100,000 people during the same period.
It is the second time this year that officials in Alpine skiing resorts are facing accusations of putting economic incentives over health consideration.
Austria’s Consumer Protection Association alleged in September that Austrian authorities may have deliberately slowed down their response to the outbreak in Ischgl to avoid an immediate shutdown of the local economy, an accusation authorities there denied.
Austrian officials confirmed the first case in the resort only days after Iceland raised alarm over a potential mass spreading event, but they continued to insist that widespread transmission was “rather unlikely.”
Health experts suspect that by then, the virus may have already been spreading in Ischgl for one month.