MILAN (AP) – Even though the first true snow has yet to fall in much of Europe, skiers are imagining with fear a once unthinkable scene: Skiing in Zermatt in Switzerland while lifting carefree across the border in Italy’s Aosta valley.
Italian and French leaders resisted pressure to reopen ski resorts before Christmas, encouraging European coordination so their industries don’t suffer during the pandemic while others develop. But the Alps in Switzerland and Austria could be spoilers.
Ski resorts are one of the main sources of transmission in the deadly spring surge of COVID-19.
So far, restrictions to slow the infection curve have seen lifts shut down in Italy, France, Germany and Austria, as well as countries in the east. But skiers are already heading for the mountains in Switzerland, the envy of the ski industry and local officials in mountainous areas elsewhere on the continent who lost much of last season to the virus. They warned of irreversible economic damage if not allowed to open this season.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that the pre-Christmas opening was unthinkable. While ski luminaries such as world and Olympic champion Alberto Tomba have argued that this is an individual sport performed in the open air, leaders point out the risk of transmission in busy lift lines and lodges, as well as closed cable cars.
Top health officials in Italy appeared shocked when they were asked at a briefing Tuesday about prospects for opening up the ski season, minutes after they had just reported the highest 853 deaths in a 24-hour period.
“I admit I have a hard time commenting on the arguments relating to ski areas and what will happen at Christmas, thinking about these numbers,” said Dr. Franco Locatelli, head of Italy’s national scientific council.
Representatives of France’s mountainous industry met with the French prime minister on Monday to press for reopening, but it appears that their pleas went unheard.
“It seems unlikely for me to envision a reopening for the holidays, and much preferably to support a reopening in January, in good shape,” Macron said as he drew up plans late Tuesday for gradual easing of the current lockdown.
Plans to reopen also remain on the ice in the eastern states of Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – even though Serbia is preparing for winter vigorously, as if COVID-19 does not exist, relying on domestic and foreign visitors. .
Austria, whose current lockdown runs through December 6, has for months said it hopes to reopen its slopes this season and rejects Italy’s idea of closing it until January 10. On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz rejected calls to abolish this year’s ski season due to the pandemic.
In Bavaria, Germany’s biggest ski destination, Governor Markus Soeder supported the idea, saying that if European borders remain open during the Christmas season, there must be some sort of blanket rule to close resorts.
In Switzerland, lifts do operate in Zermatt, next to the famous Matterhorn, and east Davos, near Austria. Famous resort St. Moritz, a favorite destination for wealthy Italians, will open up about 60% of its slopes this weekend.
But much of the fun from a ski holiday is gone: the slopes of Zermatt may be open, but the restaurant isn’t – meaning warm chocolate, brewed wine or cold beer in a pub or restaurant after the mountain is up.
So far, only 10% of the country’s 250 ski stations have been open because only the highest plains get enough snow, according to Swiss Tourism spokesman Veronique Kanel. He said he didn’t expect a flood of foreign skiers, given the strict travel rules still in place in many countries.
An official at the Swiss health ministry said Switzerland plans to join discussions among officials from the Alpine countries in the coming days to coordinate plans for a ski season relaunch.
“Obviously the situation is complicated: It’s hard to have only one country open its ski slopes when another closes it. There needs to be coordination, ”said the official, who did not want to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Keaten contributed from Geneva.
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