ROME—Forget Valentine’s Day. It’s ski week that really defines February for many Europeans, who wouldn’t dream of giving up their après-ski vin chaud or hot buttered rum by a roaring fire in a crowded resort to chase the winter blues away. And even though vaccination rollout has been dismal across the E.U. and new variants of COVID-19 are making it particularly dangerous to meet and mingle, many European skiers are planning to hit the slopes anyway. A year ago, before anyone understood how contagious COVID-19 really was or how devastating it would be to health-care systems and the frail, ski buffs unknowingly partied in the Alps and Dolomites and took the virus back home, which begs the question: Why would anyone go to a packed resort this year, knowing the risks involved and how quickly it can turn lethal?
Still, skiers, it seems, won’t be left out in the cold.
The slopes opened on Christmas Eve across Austria, including Ischgl—dubbed “Ibiza on Ice” for its come-what-may party atmosphere. Ischgl was an early superspreader hotspot in last year’s European pandemic kick-off where 6,000 people are estimated to have been infected, spreading the virus to more than a dozen countries before anyone had a clue how dangerous the pandemic would get. At least 40 people infected there died.
While the Christmas and New Year holidays fed the coffers of the Austrian businesses that were open this season, the entire area of Tyrol, where Ischgl is located, will go into a 10-day lockdown on Feb. 12 to try to mitigate the spread of the 400 South African-variant COVID-19 infections still swarming the area after the holidaymakers left. Starting Friday, police will conduct what they say will be the largest police operation in recent years, including patrolling the German border and Innsbruck Airport. “For almost a year now, we have been challenged to fight the pandemic. It has become more difficult and more diffuse in the last few weeks,” Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz said, announcing the lockdown. “We must do everything we can to prevent the spread of this variant, if that does not succeed, the spread must be slowed down.”
France, where 12 percent of the population goes skiing every winter—and where both the fast-spreading English and South African variants are now taking hold—will not be opening ski lifts at its 350 resorts at all in February, according to their tourist board. The slopes, however, are open and those who live in ski villages have devised various ways to haul themselves back up the mountains or have turned instead to cross country skiing, which is allowed. In the cross-country ski resort of Plateau de Beille, ticket sales to access the flat pistes have jumped by 30 percent to accommodate 1,400 cross country skiers this season so far.
Italy, the first epicenter of the pandemic in Europe, is scheduled to open its slopes in the safer yellow zones including Lombardy (where between 10 and 43 percent of all new coronavirus cases are the English variant), Piedmont, Trento, Valle d’Aosta and Veneto on Feb. 15, though nationwide restrictions mean that the parties stop when indoor dining stops daily at 6 p.m.—or at least move to the hotels and chalets, which will be open. On Feb. 7, the 2021 World Ski Championships kicked off in Cortina, but with no spectators it has done little to boost the economy in the hard-hit sector, which usually brings in $1.5 billion a year and employs 15,000 permanent seasonal workers.
The Daily Beast enquired about chalet rental for foreigners in several popular spots and was told that despite restrictions on entering the country except for work or family reasons, they were fully booked. One private chalet owner said she would be happy to write up the rental contract to reflect a “family connection” such as visiting a niece to get around any restrictions. As of Thursday, the only exception is the popular ski region of Bolzano in South Tyrol, which is currently in the orange zone and will likely be prohibited from opening.
Italian virologist Fabrizio Pregliasco said this week that the overall situation in Italy is “essentially stable” but that opening venues that attract groups could spark a third wave. “We are demanding a marathon from our fellow citizens,” he said. “If there are common sense and systematic compliance with the protocols already in place, then a reopening is possible.” If not, it will spell disaster.