Austria is banning all apres-ski events during the upcoming winter tourism season, the country's chancellor announced on Thursday.
"The infection risk is simply too high," Sebastian Kurz told reporters in Vienna. "All other activities like skiing, shopping, dining and wellness however will be possible."
Winter sports account for serious business in Austria, which is a superpower of competitive skiing where tourism gains directly and indirectly around 15% of economic output. But its resorts are also known for less athletic fun. Once lifts shut, skiers pile into often rowdy bars that became a breeding ground for the virus last season, fuelling several outbreaks, including one at the resort of Ischgl.
“There will be no apres-ski as we know it from earlier times,” Tourism Minister Elisabeth Koestinger told a news conference, adding the seating requirement would also apply to outdoor areas. “Standing, dancing, singing while densely packed in small bars or under-umbrella bars is a potential source of infection and we are distancing ourselves from it,” she said.
In closed ski lifts, face masks will be required and passengers must stay 1 metre apart, Koestinger said, likening it to public transport. The requirement to sit at tables is in line with new rules for bars and restaurants in Austria, which is trying to bring a second wave of infections under control. Daily cases here are as high as they were in late March, when the first spike was decreasing under a national lockdown.
The conservative-led government wants to avoid such drastic measures for the sake of the economy, but its top source of foreign guests, Germany, has already issued a travel warning for one of its skiing regions, the province of Vorarlberg.
Tyrol Governor Guenther Platter, under whose watch virus cases rose sharply in the ski resort of Ischgl last season, apologised for the mishap.
"I am sorry, very sorry that so many got infected and that we had casualties. But during a pandemic a single person can't accept the blame alone," he added when pressed why he wouldn't apologise to German tourists.
The outbreak in Ischgl, a popular resort in western Austria, is considered one of Europe's earliest "super-spreader" events of the pandemic.
On Wednesday, an Austrian consumer protection group filed four civil lawsuits against the country's government for failing to contain the coronavirus outbreak in Ischgl.
The cluster in the Alpine ski resort has been blamed for thousands of infections worldwide during the early phase of the pandemic.