“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Yannick Bellon, the head of a local ski school, said as he drove past the crowds on Saturday.
In normal years, a single pass would allow skiers to swish between resorts. They could begin their descent in Switzerland, find themselves in France by the time they arrived in the valley, and then take a lift right back up again.
But clashing approaches to the coronavirus pandemic have driven divisions between countries throughout Europe — and are on vivid display here in the Alps.
Spooked by the massive coronavirus outbreak last year linked to the Austrian ski resort of Ischgl, the French have kept ski lifts closed so far this season — and extended that decision on Wednesday. The Swiss, meanwhile, decided they could manage the risk — initially by imposing mask and social distancing mandates and, later, by closing après-ski venues, believed to have been key transmission hubs in Ischgl.
Though the French government urged citizens to stay away from the Swiss slopes, determined skiers rushed to the mountains amid ideal conditions this past weekend, leaving their pandemic fatigue behind. In one Morgins parking lot on Saturday, about every fourth car had a French license plate.
The business at the Swiss resorts, which has been booming on some days, has prompted envy in French ski towns devastated by coronavirus restrictions. But the crowds also make social distancing more difficult to enforce and have heightened public health concerns, as highly contagious variants of the virus sweep their way around the world.
Crowd control in Switzerland
Skiers and snowboarders stood boot-to-boot in snaking lift lines at the Swiss Alpine resort of Verbier this past weekend. Flumserberg, one of the closest ski areas to Zurich, was pushed to its capacity limits and eventually had to block people from getting off at the train station. Some resorts had to call in local fire brigades to keep order.
In Morgins, safety personnel wearing orange jackets with the inscription “Stop Covid” hurried the lines along, reminding people to keep distance and pull their masks above their noses. Compliance with the rules was high, and in the vast majority of cases, the reminders by the workers — known among locals as “covid angels” — weren’t necessary.
“Everybody is quite keen to follow all the rules,” said Bellon, from the ski school.
“But it’s bizarre,” said 31-year-old Marie, who had made the six-hour trip from Paris to ski with friends. “Wouldn’t it make more sense if they opened the resorts in France, so that people can scatter, instead of everyone heading to one single ski lift?”
She said she didn’t want to provide her full name because she risked being subject to quarantine upon her return to France.
France, Germany and Italy — the European Union’s three most-populous nations — pushed for an E.U.-wide closure of ski resorts in November. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte warned that the situation could quickly become “uncontrollable.”
Opponents of reopening pointed to the disaster at Ischgl, which last year contributed to the virus’s rapid spread across Europe. The resort was linked to 6,000 infections in 45 nations in the early stages of the pandemic.
Some E.U. countries rejected those concerns. Skiers headed back onto the slopes in Austria, though border restrictions limited how many tourists could come from outside the country. Spain, too, kept ski resorts open, having largely backed away from the national lockdown approach it deployed last spring.
Switzerland is not a member of the E.U., and officials coordinating the country’s pandemic response were reluctant to give in to pressure from the bloc’s biggest members. Decisions were largely left to regional authorities, who were inclined to keep their local businesses and ski lifts humming.
“Closing is simply not an option,” said Christophe Darbellay, president of the regional government in Valais, where Morgins is located.
Switzerland — which has been reporting more coronavirus cases per capita than Italy or France — last week tightened its curbs and closed nonessential stores among other measures. But it did not fundamentally change course on skiing.
To enforce social distancing and other safety rules in the open portion of Portes du Soleil, the main Swiss management company has been spending up to $22,000 a day on 50 additional workers, said tourism director Sébastien Epiney. The additional expenses and a slow Christmas season have meant that the lift operator risks losses this winter.
Skiing and snowboarding — outdoor sports in which people generally strive to avoid physical contact — themselves offer relatively little opportunity for coronavirus infection.
“If you take the precautions and you wear your mask, I don’t think it’s a high-risk activity,” said Andreas Cerny, an infectious-diseases specialist in Switzerland. But he cautioned that the decision to keep ski resorts open sends a contradictory message and “promotes the mobility of people.”
Striking a similar tone, the World Health Organization said in an advisory last month that “skiing does not spread COVID-19, but busy mountain resorts do.”
On Monday, the Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz closed ski schools and placed employees and guests under quarantine at two upscale hotels after coronavirus test results prompted fears that highly contagious virus variants from Britain or South Africa may be spreading in the town.
But on the mountain above Morgins, health concerns did not widely resonate with skiers looking for a brief escape from the pandemic.
Olivier Hasinger, 38, from Lausanne, Switzerland, an hour’s drive away, acknowledged that the sight of busy ski lifts this winter may be bizarre, but he said that unless the rules changed, he planned to return soon.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to see the mountains like this,” he said, his face almost fully covered by a mask and ski goggles that reflected Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps, and slopes that disappeared in the clouds below.
Struggling businesses in France
In Châtel, a resort on the French side of the border that’s only a five-minute drive from Morgins, business owners were hoping at least some of the skiers on the Swiss side of the mountain might make their way over.
French resorts are officially open for those who want to ski cross-country or book rides on snow groomers that in other years are used to freshen up the slopes. People are also allowed to ski down from a Swiss summit — but with lifts closed, there’s no easy way to get back up.
In the Châtel village center, French classical music coming from a carousel competed for attention with pop tunes that blared out of a pub offering mulled wine to go. But there had not been a single customer that day, said Jackson Sichel, 34, who had opened the carousel four hours earlier.
“We still open every day to try to survive,” said Sichel. “I don’t have a Plan B.”
The closure of ski lifts has eliminated hundreds of seasonal jobs in Châtel and put the local economy — accustomed to packed bars and rowdy ski festivals — on the brink of collapse.
“It feels like a dead village,” said Nicolas Rubin, the mayor.
Nobody here wants to bring back pub crawls or festivals this winter. And Châtel’s residents don’t resent their busy Swiss neighbors. Instead, their anger has been directed at the French government.
Rubin said that his constituents “don’t understand why the government cannot open the ski areas” and that many believe “it is possible to welcome customers here in accordance with safety rules.”
He said he conveyed that message to French Prime Minister Jean Castex in a phone call last month.
In the local church, the community has erected a miniature replica of their region in better times, with busy slopes below shooting stars.
But in an either coincidentally or deliberately ominous message, the miniature ski lift’s entrance carries the logo “Ischgl.”