The Ischgl Protocol – A party location infects half of Europe

The party is over/Foto:

The winter sports village Ischgl in Tyrol was known for its parties. Then it became the hub of the corona virus – out of unscrupulousness and greed. A team of reporters reconstructed the case.

From: Der Spiegel  on 27.03.2020

“Home of Madness”

By Jürgen Dahlkamp, Hauke Goos, Roman Höfner, Felix Hutt, Gunther Latsch, Timo Lehmann, Walter Mayr, Max Polonyi and Jonathan Stock.

Ischgl in Tyrol is a mountain village in the Paznaun valley at an altitude of 1377 metres. It has a parish church and a chapel for the dead, about 1600 inhabitants and 11,800 guest beds, 239 kilometres of ski slopes, 1000 snow cannons, 45 lifts. There is the disco “Kuhstall” and the après ski bar “Kitzloch”. In Ischgl you can ski and party all night long at Jägermeister-Red Bull. Ischgl is a brand like Ibiza, Sylt or the Oktoberfest. Millions of tourists meet here every year. They come from Dublin, Reykjavík, Copenhagen and Helsinki, from Bavaria, Hamburg and Neuss. The tourism industry in the valley has a turnover of 250 million euros a year.

The fact that half the world travels to Ischgl has changed the place. But in recent weeks, Ischgl in particular has changed the world. In just 14 days, the town in Austria has developed into a European hub for coronavirus. The insight into confidential documents, conversations with people in charge from Ischgl to Iceland and the stories of tourists who tell of their days in Ischgl show how this could happen.

Saturday, February 29th

At Dublin Airport, Ryanair flight FR2412 to Memmingen is waiting for take-off clearance. John Cormack and four friends are sitting on board the plane, looking forward to their annual men’s holiday. Cormack comes from Cork, his friends from neighbouring towns in the south-west of Ireland. They want to travel on from Memmingen to Ischgl by rental car.

Cormack is 56 years old, he has four grown-up sons. He learned to ski in the early nineties. It is his sixth visit to Ischgl. What does he appreciate about the Tyrolean holiday resort? “Guaranteed snow, a great choice of slopes and great après-ski.”

When Ryanair flight FR2412 took off, not a single corona case was known to have occurred in Ireland.

Austria reports 5 infected persons, 2 from Tyrol, Germany 57, Denmark knows of 2 infected persons, Sweden 12, Norway 6, Iceland confirmed the first case of corona the day before, a holidaymaker returning from Italy.

When Cormack and his friends reach Ischgl, they check in, change their clothes and go to “Nikis Stadl”, one of the bars on Dorfstraße, Ischgl’s party mile. The après-fun starts here every day at 3 pm, many guests come directly from the slopes, most of them have already drunk at the top of the huts.

Cormack and his friends fight their way through the crowd to the bar. Past German holidaymakers discussing the 6:0 victory of the Bavarians in Hoffenheim, because some Bayern fans have called Hoffenheim’s patron Dietmar Hopp a “son of a bitch” and the encounter was about to be broken off.

It is close and loud. The DJ plays “Hey, we want to see the polar bears” by the Puhdys. Cormack has heard the song so many times by now that he can sing it along. Ischgl is an “honest deal,” he says, you know what you get here.

This Saturday, an Icelandair plane lands at the Icelandic airport Keflavík. Flight FI533 took off from Munich, among the passengers are Icelandic tourists who have been to Ischgl. Since it became known that the Italian returnee has been infected with the novel coronavirus, Iceland has been under national emergency. An uncontrolled epidemic would have catastrophic consequences on the small Atlantic island.

After arrival, one of the Ischgl returnees reports with symptoms. He is tested and asked to be quarantined. The passenger list is used to identify the travellers who were sitting near him, they are tested and asked to stay at home as well.

The German press agency dpa reports on this day: “Authorities are arming themselves worldwide”, the Austrian “Kronenzeitung” has the headline “Corona alarm: Four kindergarten children infected”.

Wednesday, March 4th

Italy orders the closure of all schools and universities. Germany reports the 262nd Corona patient. In Reykjavík Gudnason gets the test results of the tourists from the Munich plane. Gudnason writes two messages in the EWRS system, naming the so-called Cluster Ischgl. One message goes to all members, the second directly to the Austrian authorities. In Iceland, he writes at 23:55, there are now 26 corona cases, 8 of which are attributed to Ischgl. Just one day later their number will rise to 14, and in the end there will be 21 Icelandic holidaymakers infected in Ischgl.

In his press conference, Gudnason declared Ischgl a high risk area.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin has also been informed with the message to the European early warning system. Germans make up the largest group of holiday guests in Tyrol.

On the RKI website there is no indication, no warning, nothing.

Thursday, March 5th

At 0.32 a.m. the Ministry of Social Affairs in Vienna informs the Tyrolean health authority about the mail from Reykjavík.

Bernhard Benka, a general practitioner and head of the Department of Communicable Diseases, Crisis Management and Disease Control in the Ministry of Social Affairs, is currently the most important employee of the Green Minister of Health Rudolf Anschober. He reacts immediately.

A lot depends on Benka’s assessment. In Ischgl, at least 11,000 euros per guest bed are earned per year, 83 percent of the business is generated during the winter season. March is traditionally the strongest month. Ischgl had reported 1.41 million overnight stays in the entire winter 2018/19, and from November 2019 to January 2020 alone, the figures rose by a further 3.4 per cent.

Benka’s people are calling around on the phone and contacting Reykjavík by e-mail: “Dear colleagues, is there any further information regarding the patients from Ischgl? When did the symptoms begin, from when to when did they start, where did they live? Was there any special contact with anyone?”

On the same day, the Icelanders transmit the names of the hotels to the Social Ministry in Vienna.

At 4.51 p.m. Dietmar Walser, Managing Director of the Paznaun-Ischgl Tourism Association, receives an e-mail from a leading member of the Gudnason team in Reykjavík. “14 cases in Iceland with recent trips to Ischgl have been confirmed.” And she makes an important addition: the people concerned “were not part of a single group, they stayed in five different hotels and to our knowledge had no contact with each other”.

The virus is in Ischgl – and it cannot be confined to one bar, one hotel, one company. Ischgl is a breeding ground, the business of an entire season in danger. Departing tourists – like the 21 Icelanders – bring the virus from Ischgl to their home countries.

The significance of the news from Iceland is apparently not understood in Austria. In Innsbruck this Thursday, the director of the provincial health department, Franz Katzgraber, said that Icelandic tourists had presumably been infected by a passenger travelling with the virus from Italy. It seems “from a medical point of view, it seems unlikely that there has been any infection in Tyrol”.

John Cormack receives a WhatsApp message from his wife. She had read that Ischgl was considered a high risk area, at least in Iceland.

Cormack and his four friends turn on BBC World News. It is about falling stock prices and about Italy. There is no mention of a danger to Tyrol.

Because hardly anyone in the village talks about the Icelanders’ assessment, they go to the “Kitzloch” in the evening. A group of Norwegians order shots, a group of Danish tourists do the same, waiters make their way through the crowd with whistles.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz will remember later in a TV interview that he had already been “warned by some foreign heads of government outside Europe” at the beginning of March. He had thereupon “put a lot of pressure” in Austria for “hard measures” to be taken.

Infected in Austria: 41. infected in Germany: 482. The “Handelsblatt” writes: “Threatening recession: Grand coalition working on a crisis paper”.

Friday, March 6

On its website, the tabloid “Österreich” reports that the trail of the sick Icelanders leads to Ischgl. The headline of the article: “Kept secret”.

The report remains largely unnoticed. While the health authorities are contacting hotels where the Icelanders have stayed, they are preparing for another weekend of parties this morning, as in the rest of the Paznaun valley.

The health experts suggest that corona tests should be started with the service staff of the hotels, as well as with the employees of the après-ski bars. The Tyrolean infectious disease specialist Robert Zangerle says: “Après-ski is a virus slingshot.”

Friday, March 6

On its website, the tabloid “Österreich” reports that the trail of the sick Icelanders leads to Ischgl. The headline of the article: “Kept secret”.

The report remains largely unnoticed. While the health authorities are contacting hotels where the Icelanders have stayed, they are preparing for another weekend of parties this morning, as in the rest of the Paznaun valley.

The health experts suggest that corona tests should be started on hotel service staff, as well as on the staff of après-ski bars. The Tyrolean infectious disease specialist Robert Zangerle says: “Après-ski is a virus slingshot.”

Even South Tyrol, located on the Italian side of the Alps, is now classified as “potentially hazardous to health” by the Ministry of Health. After Tyrol’s Governor Günther Platter fears damage to the reputation of his ski areas and expresses doubts, the Federal Government corrects its assessment – and lifts the risk warning.

Saturday, March 7th

On Saturday there is a change of bed in Ischgl. Thousands of holidaymakers leave, thousands of holidaymakers arrive.

This morning, the first gondola goes uphill at 8.30 am. The cable car can transport 3440 passengers per hour up to the Silvretta Arena. The lift business is the largest flywheel for tourism in the Paznaun valley with an annual turnover of a good 80 million euros. Representatives of the long-established Ischgl families sit on the supervisory board of Silvrettaseilbahn AG, including Werner Kurz, the mayor of Ischgl.

Many of those responsible in Tyrolean tourism are members of the conservative ÖVP, the party of Federal Chancellor Kurz. The “Tiroler Adler Runde”, an association of 49 entrepreneurs, donates to the ÖVP and combines this support with political demands. On 18th February Kurz met with representatives of this group for a discreet discussion in the Grand Hotel “Europa” in Innsbruck.

John Cormack and his friends will return to Ireland this Saturday. On Sunday Cormack and his sons will attend a hurling game, a sport not unlike hockey. One of his friends feels bad and is tested. The others from the Ischgl group also get tested. After just under a week, they have the result: all five have been infected with the novel corona virus in Ischgl.

Nicola Giesen will be travelling to Ischgl with her husband Thomas on 7 March. They come from Neuss, 50 kilometres from Heinsberg, which has been Germany’s corona hotspot for a few days now. They met each other 30 years ago on a skiing holiday, their two children are now out of the house. The Giesens want to get out of the Corona panic.

Nicola Giesen has done research on the Internet to find out which huts offer good food. She has not read anything about a corona danger in Ischgl.

Apart from the Giesens, numerous other Germans are arriving in Ischgl, including 200 short-break holidaymakers who set off in six buses from the Aalen area in Swabia in the direction of Tyrol. Eleven days later, 109 infected people are registered in the Swabian Ostalbkreis region around Aalen alone.

While the tourists are celebrating, in the “Kuhstall”, in the “Champagnerhütte”, in the “Schatzi-Bar”, the Austria Press Agency (Apa) reports at 10.31 pm, citing the Tyrolean Sanitary Directorate, that a 36-year-old Norwegian who worked in Ischgl had tested positive for the virus and had been “immediately isolated”.

Sunday, March 8

Norway states that out of 1198 infections with coronavirus, almost 500 are attributable to Austria. Most patients had been in the Paznaun valley. The Norwegian Health Authority FHI is now also sending an alert to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) based in Solna, Sweden. Denmark is still considering. If it takes three days, the Danes will know that Ischgl is directly or indirectly responsible for more than half of the 262 Danish infected persons.

Nicola Giesen and her husband are going on the big smugglers’ round this Sunday, eating Schlutzkrapfen and Kässpätzle, from half past four to half past eight they do après-ski, they drink Grauburgunder and Grüner Veltliner.

At 18.03 Apa reports that the man who tested positive the day before is a bartender from the “Kitzloch”. A transmission of the coronavirus to guests of the bar is “from a medical point of view rather unlikely”, thereupon the regional sanitary directorate announces: “For all visitors who were in the bar in the mentioned period and show no symptoms, no further medical clarification is necessary”.

The “Kitzloch” is not far from the valley station of the Pardatschgratbahn. The shutters are red and white

The “Kitzloch” belongs, like the discotheque “Kuhstall” (self-promotion: “Home of Madness”), to the empire of the hotelier family Zangerl. Peter Zangerl is the third generation of the Zangerl family to manage the Hotel “Silvretta”, which opened in 1930. There is a gourmet restaurant and a 1200 square meter wellness area, guests can order oysters in the “Kitzloch” or a mixture of Jägermeister and Red Bull, called “Hirsch”.

After it became known that the bartender was infected with the virus, the place was disinfected. In Germany there are 1000 corona infected people this Sunday. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn is calling for major events with more than a thousand participants to be cancelled. The “Kitzloch” is full as usual this evening. “Som sild i en tønde”, one has stood in the “Kitzloch”, Danish visitors say, “like herrings in a barrel”.

Lombardy reports 103 deaths, for this Sunday alone.

Monday, March 9

Austria reports 131 infected persons, Germany the first two corona deaths. Virologist Christian Drosten said at the federal press conference: “This is an absolutely serious situation.”

In the morning, the Tyrolean regional health department receives an urgent warning from Norway about the danger zone Ischgl. Also in Finland and in Sweden Tyrol is now considered a high risk area.

Five days after the reports from Iceland, the Tyrolean government feels compelled to make an admission. Due to the illness of the “Kitzloch” bartender, it could “not be ruled out that there is a connection to some of the people who tested positive in Iceland”.

Nicola Giesen and her husband are sitting in a hut during lunch when word gets around among the guests that the “Kitzloch” is to be closed.

At 15.53 hours it is reported that the infected barman has infected at least 15 people.

At 16.04 the “Schatzi-Bar” wishes its guests on Facebook “a sexy, new week”.

At 4.32 p.m. an SMS is received on the smartphone of the “Kitzloch” operator Peter Zangerl. Their text reads, uncorrected, like this: “Lock up your Kitz Bar – or do you want to be to blame at the end of the season in Ischgl u possibly Tyrol”?

It was sent by Franz Hörl. Hörl sits for the ÖVP in the National Council, in Tyrol he is head of the Austrian Business Federation, vice president of the Chamber of Commerce and also spokesman for the cable car operators.

Apparently Hörl fears that the news from the “Kitzloch” could ruin the business.

A little later he sends a second SMS to Zangerl: “The whole country is looking at your restaurant – if a camera sees it in operation we Tyroleans look like a Hottentot state.

Hörl also owns a hotel. What he doesn’t know is that his staff is also infected.

Peter Zangerl, the owner of the “Kitzloch”, writes an answer. All decisions are made in consultation with the health department, the medical officer, the police, etc.

At 6.59 pm Apa reports that Zangerl’s “Kitzloch” has been officially closed by the Tyrolean government, “in agreement with the operator”.

Tuesday, March 10th

In Rome, St. Peter’s Square is closed. In a video appeal, the Pope calls on the faithful all over the world to pray for priests who would bring strength and the Word of God to the sick.

In Copenhagen, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen announces that the Austrian ski region Ischgl will be put on the Red List, together with the Chinese province Hubei, Iran and the province Gyeongsangbuk-do in South Korea.

In Innsbruck in the late afternoon, Governor Günther Platter said: “So, if you look at the suspected cases, but also the infections, you can see quite clearly that the hotspot here is Ischgl”.

Almost a week has passed since the first warnings from Reykjavík. The district governor in Landeck, Platter says, will issue “decrees that all après-ski venues in Ischgl will be closed”. And Sanitary Director Katzgraber, who on Thursday described it as “unlikely” from a medical point of view that the Icelandic holidaymakers in Ischgl were infected, says: anyone who spends the evening in a crowded environment, “more or less intoxicated with alcohol”, is living dangerously.

Meanwhile, 130 sports doctors are sitting together at a congress in the neighbouring community of St. Christoph. After the event has been cancelled, a majority decides to stay for skiing and partying. Days later at least nine doctors are infected with the virus.

Wednesday, March 11th

The WHO has announced that Corona is a pandemic. President Donald Trump announces a ban on entry for Europeans. Germany now has 1900 people infected, Austria 246, and Ireland has the first corona deaths.

In Ischgl Nicola Giesen hears in the afternoon that more après-ski bars are to be closed. The Giesens decide not to break off the holiday anyway. She takes a photo of the village street with her smartphone. The people crowd there.

Also on this Wednesday, business continues. In the afternoon, Governor Platter announces in Innsbruck that skiing in Ischgl will be banned for two weeks starting next Saturday. Proudly he says: “We are a little earlier here than other federal states.”

And medical director Katzgraber? Foreigners who did not show any symptoms and only became ill after the incubation period, he says, would “then unfortunately, by God, bring the virus – home”.

On this Wednesday the skiing day in Ischgl will end without après-ski for the first time. Restaurants and bars are still open, even in the evening.

Thursday, March 12th

The German share index Dax loses almost 1300 points. The news channel n-tv writes on its website “Panic is spreading.” There are five deaths in Germany until this Thursday. On Twitter, virologist Drosten writes: “We will very soon have to focus on protection, testing and preferential hospital treatment for particularly vulnerable groups.

In Ischgl, a decision is being fought over. The cable cars are running. While Andreas Steibl, the head of the tourism association, announces the premature end of the season on 15 March, the hotelier Günther Aloys from Ischgl says: “This is nothing but a flu, which is not fatal for the vast majority of people”.

In the evening, Governor Platter meets with representatives of the tourism industry. In the Tiroler Landhaus, it is said afterwards, Platter and the lift operator spokesman Hörl are said to have shouted at each other – which only Hörl denies.

Friday, March 13

In the pillared hall of the Innsbruck Landhaus, Governor Platter announced that, after a video conference with Chancellor Kurz, he had to announce “far-reaching consequences” for Tyrol: The season is over, he said, and it is important to prevent 150,000 new guests from pouring into the Tyrol the next day.

Next to Platter is Franz Hörl. He is experiencing “the most serious intervention ever for the economy and for tourism since the Second World War”, he says. And adds that the step just announced is of course “currently still incomprehensible” to many. “After all, we are closing the country with full houses and full ski slopes.” And this despite the fact that two-thirds of the country is “currently not affected in any way” by the virus.

When the Federal Chancellor appeared before the press in Vienna at 2 pm, Nicola Giesen was sitting with her husband at lunch. The two hear on the radio how Kurz is informing the “dear Austrians” about tightened measures. He has special news for the Tyrolean Paznaun Valley and for the community of St. Anton am Arlberg. “These areas will be isolated from now on,” Kurz says.

The Giesens are going into the valley. The father of their landlady advises them to leave immediately, not knowing how long the borders will remain open. He stamps their guest card, the Giesens have to show it when they leave Ischgl. They too are tested positive in Germany.

Whole travel groups wander through Tyrol. Apparently nobody leaving Tyrol is tested for the virus. Cars are jammed on the roads out of the Tyrolean ski resorts, although many have booked their flights for the next day or the day after next. Arriving at Wiesberg at the exit of the Paznaun valley, holidaymakers are scattered across Europe this Friday evening.

The headlines of the day:

“Quarantine Zone Ischgl: Total chaos.”

Cable car operator spokesman Hörl: “Close your Kitz Bar”

“Ischgl and St. Anton – Federal Army to be deployed in Tyrol”

“Over 100 Danes have been infected in Ischgl”

In the evening, the Robert Koch Institute also classified Tyrol as a risk area – more than a week after the Icelandic authorities, six days after the Norwegians, three days after the Danes. When asked by SPIEGEL why the RKI had waited until 13 March, the spokeswoman replied: “Because of the current situation, we currently have no resources for historical research.

The Ischgl Tourism Association says that due to the end of the season there will be 380,000 fewer overnight stays than planned. Alexander von der Thannen, the chairman, estimates the loss of profits at 20 to 25 percent.

Donald Trump declares a national emergency for the USA.

The cable cars and lifts in Ischgl no longer operate. The bars and restaurants are closed. The Ischgl closing with Eros Ramazotti on the Idalpe is cancelled. Ischgl lies like a disused adventure park in the Tyrolean Paznaun Valley.

Eleven days later, on 24 March, the Austrian Association for the Protection of Consumer Interests filed criminal charges against, among others, the province of Tyrol, Governor Günther Platter, Sanitätslandesrat Franz Katzgraber, Silvrettaseilbahn AG and other managers and hoteliers. And against Franz Hörl, the spokesman for the cable car operators. The accusation: intentional creation of a common danger.

And another day later, on 25 March, the British “Telegraph” reported that IT consultant Daren Bland from Maresfield in East Sussex had already been infected in Tyrol in January. He had been in Ischgl with three friends from 15 to 19 January, skiing: Two came from Denmark, the third from Minnesota, USA. All three showed corona symptoms on their return.

At home, Bland infected his wife and daughter. According to the newspaper, it is conceivable that Bland was the first British corona case ever.

For Ischgl and the rest of the valley this means an early end to the season: 111 million euros less turnover this winter. The damage for the rest of the world cannot yet be quantified. On Twitter there is the hashtag #Ischglgate, the place is mentioned in a row with Wuhan, Heinsberg and Bergamo.

Status Infected / Dead on 26 March, 17.30 hours:

Austria 6398 / 49

Iceland 802 / 2

Ireland 1564 / 9

Denmark 1997 / 41

Norway 3279 / 14

Italy 74 386 / 7503

Germany 41 519 / 239

Source: Der Spiegel

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