Covid Cover Up? Court Rules on Austrian Pandemic Party Town
(Bloomberg) -- A massive Covid-19 outbreak at the hard-partying ski resort of Ischgl was covered up and then downplayed by Austrian officials to save last year’s lucrative spring season, a Vienna court was told on Friday.
The Consumer Protection Association (VSV), a group spearheading the legal action, alleges the failings made the resort an early “superspreader” of the virus in Europe as 11,000 tourists from all over the continent skied, danced and drank, unaware of the outbreak, before returning home and taking Covid-19 with them.
The regional court’s first civil proceedings, brought by the widow and son of a man who died after staying in Ischgl, were held in a ballroom at Vienna’s Supreme Court to accommodate media.
Their case, seeking 100,000 euros ($118,000) in compensation, is an important test for 14 other pending lawsuits filed by victims or their surviving dependents, according to the VSV. It may also be a bellwether for whether governments can be held liable for shortcomings in their response to outbreaks around the world. A court in Paris earlier this month opened an investigation into whether the former French health minister underplayed the risks of coronavirus in the early stage of the pandemic.
VSV said it initially sought amicable roundtable talks with the Austrian government on behalf of its 6,000 complainants a year ago but was forced to pursue legal action when it got no response.
The state attorney rejected responsibility, arguing it wasn’t clear where the plaintiff was infected, and that the nation’s epidemic legislation didn’t allow for individual claims, Der Standard newspaper reported from the hearing. The judge adjourned the hearing on Friday and will issue a written verdict, it said.
The court process follows a report by a panel of Austrian experts last October. They concluded national authorities should have shut down the resort, known as the Ibiza of the Alps for its wild apres-ski scene, four days earlier than they did in March 2020 because the risks it would spread were evident. The subsequent mishandling of an evacuation caused chaos which may have accelerated the spread of the virus, they said.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s decision to announce on live TV an immediate quarantine in Ischgl, and the lack of coordination with local authorities, sowed panic that could have been avoided as thousands of tourists tried to leave the valley to avoid a lockdown, the panel said.
“Decisions had to be made quickly and I think these have largely worked well,” Kurz said in a press conference last October, defending his approach. “All decisions were coordinated between the health authorities and the government, federal states, and that was the case in Tyrol.”
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