Austria allows Christmas skiing, effectively for locals only

VIENNA (Reuters) - Austria on Wednesday chose a middle way in its standoff with neighbouring countries on whether skiing over Christmas is safe, by letting resorts reopen on Christmas Eve but making ski holidays virtually impossible.

Austria's Chancellor Sebastian Kurz speaks during a news conference, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Vienna, Austria December 2, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Many ski resorts became breeding grounds for the coronavirus during the first wave of infections, and resorts have adopted a social distancing and other infection-curbing measures to ensure that does not happen again.

Despite that, Italy has said it will keep resorts shut over the Christmas and New Year holidays for fear of infections accelerating again. It called for a European agreement on closures backed by Germany, which has few resorts but many skiers who flock to foreign resorts, but Austria opposed it.

“Skiing is a sport, a sport that takes place in the open air, an individual sport,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said, outlining a range of measures linked to the loosening of Austria’s current coronavirus lockdown, which will switch back to a nighttime curfew on Monday.

Restaurants, hotels and tourist accommodation, however, will stay closed until Jan. 7, the government said, meaning skiing over the holiday period will essentially be limited to people who live close enough to a resort for a day trip.

In an apparent concession to Rome, Berlin and Paris, which had expressed concern about cross-border trips, Austria also said it was introducing a new quarantine requirement for anyone arriving from their countries and many more.

Until Jan. 10 all arrivals in Austria from a country with more than 100 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the previous two weeks will have to go into 10 days’ quarantine, which can be shortened if they test negative after five days in isolation, the government said in a statement.

That covers virtually all of Europe, including Germany, where the level is currently above 300 and Italy, where it is above 600. Austria’s own infection level is 796, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

“I welcome the Austrian rules that have been announced today,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn told a news conference.

“We all still have the experience from February and March in our bones,” he added, referring to outbreaks at resorts like Ischgl in Austria that spread the virus across Europe.

As of Monday, shops, museums and libraries in Austria will be allowed to reopen and primary schools will return to in-person learning. Christmas markets, however, will remain banned.

Reporting by Francois Murphy; additional reporting by Emma Thomasson in Berlin; Editing by Jon Boyle and Bernadette Baum