Every winter afternoon, the Austrian village of Ischgl resounds with the heavy clump of boots as its dozens of après-ski joints fill with sweaty visitors. Dedicated skiers from Germany, the Netherlands, the U.K., and farther afield come for reliable snow, pulse-pumping expert terrain, and 45 lifts serving 150 miles of slopes. But for many visitors, the appeal is more about partying than pistes.
Ischgl’s slogan, “Relax—if you can,” gives it a reputation as the Ibiza of the Alps. There’s the Insider “table dance” bar and Schatzi, where women in revealing dresses modeled on traditional Alpine attire shimmy and shake. The Kuhstall (Cowshed) calls itself the “Home of Wahnsinn,” German for “craziness.” Amply lubricated with beer, schnapps, and glühwein, the dancing stretches into the wee hours, when the hardiest of revelers stagger back to their hotels just as the sun reaches the rocky peaks above town.
Bernhard Zangerl, a scion of the family that owns the Kuhstall, says things will be different this winter. “There will be no wahnsinn,” he says, surveying his empty bar on a late summer day. “I guess we’re going to have to be the ‘Home of Easygoing.’ ”
In March, Ischgl’s wahnsinn helped make it one massive superspreader event. As Covid-19 wove its way through the town, health authorities, hotels, and restaurants were slow to react, unsure whether to quarantine vacationers and employees or send them home. Outbreaks across Europe have been traced to the area, and some 4,500 people have indicated they might join lawsuits alleging that the Austrian government—reluctant to sacrifice the final months of the season—allowed the resort to keep lifts open for at least a week after it became clear the coronavirus was spreading fast. (The government declined to comment on the lawsuits.) A study by the Medical University of Innsbruck found that 42% of Ischgl’s 1,500 permanent residents had been infected by April.
The virus slammed many ski towns, not just Ischgl. The Swiss resort of Verbier and France’s Les Contamines both seeded wide outbreaks, and in Colorado,Aspen and Vail were early hot spots. That shaky track record has forced ski areas worldwide to reassess operations for the weirdest season ever.
Ensuring the safety of the downhill part of the sport—at least in terms of coronavirus—is easy: It’s outside, and skis provide a natural social distance buffer. More troublesome will be getting skiers back uphill, feeding them on the mountain, and keeping them entertained when the sun sets. The specifics are a work in progress. “This season there’s no clear plan for when tests are positive,” says Peter Kolba, a Vienna attorney leading the lawsuits. “Some hotels seem to be saying, ‘Maybe I don’t want to know.’ If that’s the attitude, then I have to say we didn’t learn anything.”
Riding the gondola from his office in town to Vider Alp, a popular Austrian restaurant halfway up the mountain, Günther Zangerl is stressed. The managing director of Ischgl’s lift company, Silvrettaseilbahn AG, is doing his best to virus-proof the area, which on an average day attracts 13,000 skiers and on a busy one can top 20,000. Over the summer, the resort had about three-quarters as many visitors as it does in a normal year. It would be a “great success” to reach that level during the busier winter season, says Zangerl, who’s of no known relation to the bar owner. “You expect to deal with snow, wind, avalanches,” he says, looking out at the rugged Alpine terrain. “But there’s never been anything like this.”
Some of Ischgl’s trams can squeeze more than 150 people into each car. Its gondolas are designed to hold dozens. And most of the chairlifts ferry six or eight and have bubbles that can be closed—protecting riders from the elements, but trapping their potentially virus-laden breath.
Rides on the trams and gondolas are shorter than 15 minutes, so if the cabin windows remain open, Zangerl says, there’s enough air circulation to take skiers up the mountain without infection. Although nearby St. Anton and Germany’s Zugspitze cut cable-car capacity to about two-thirds the maximum over the summer, Zangerl says he doesn’t plan to do so unless the government orders it. “If you limit the number of people on the gondolas,” he says, “people will spend more time packed close together in queues at the bottom.” Austria classifies ski lifts, gondolas, and trams as public transportation, so passengers will be required to wear masks and maintain a 1-meter distance from one another, but the government hasn’t yet issued any specific capacity restraints or instructions on how exactly social distancing might be enforced.
Restaurants are especially problematic. They have wide-open terraces for sun-drenched days, but inclement weather makes their wood-paneled interiors grow as steamy as saunas. Capacity in dining rooms will be cut, with extra space or barriers between tables. Employees in public-facing jobs must wear masks, and Silvretta plans to liberally douse everyone and everything in disinfectant. Hand sanitizer will be available at entrances to restaurants and lifts, and the gondola and tram cabins will be frequently sprayed with a virus-killing mist. Lift tickets will include a faux silk neck gaiter—with an Ischgl logo, of course—that can be pulled over the mouth and nose. The Ischgl app that many visitors load on their phone to track where they’ve skied will have a contact-tracing feature that alerts users if they’ve been in close proximity with people who later test positive.
The town is planning its own measures such as frequent testing of workers at hotels, restaurants, and the lift-operating company. Guests will be offered Covid tests with results overnight; these were doled out for free over the summer, but they may cost something during ski season when visitors multiply tenfold. And Ischgl says it will monitor sewage—yes, the virus shows up there—to identify outbreaks before they spread.
It remains uncertain what will happen in the event of a sustained outbreak such as the one that shut down the resort in March. So far, Ischgl hasn’t announced detailed plans to deal with another lockdown and simply seems to be counting on an outbreak-free season. “With the precautions we’re taking, I don’t think we’ll get into that situation again,” says Andreas Steibl, managing director of the local tourism board.
Given the role nightlife played in last season’s difficulties, that’s where the most visible changes will take place. Three times per year, the area stages outdoor shows by the likes of Bob Dylan, Elton John, and Alicia Keys, where thousands of Bogner- and Moncler-clad fans cram together to sip Moët and rock out. This year the event scheduled for opening day—Nov. 26—has been called off, and a pair of springtime concerts on a vast stage in a gentle bowl at the mountain’s midstation may not happen either.
Après-ski is likely to be less raucous thanks to capacity limits and a 10 p.m. curfew for bars, which proprietors are hoping the town will extend to 1 a.m. On a typical winter evening, the Kuhstall teems with as many as 800 people, but this year that will be capped at a little more than 100, as guests will have to find a seat to be served. Across the street at Fire & Ice, a DJ normally pumps tunes into the night and guests spin around a pole on the dance floor. This year the music will be turned down, tables will fill the parquet, and a new menu will focus more on tapas than tequila, says co-owner Anna Kurz, 29, whose family has run the nearby Goldener Adler hotel for five generations.
Kurz adds that it will be tough to comply with safety measures—and make sure guests follow the rules—without coming off as an enforcer. But she’s determined to make things as fun as possible given the circumstances. “We’re supposed to say no all the time,” she says with a sigh. “But our business is to let people have a good time.”
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