MILAN (AP) — Though the first real snow has yet to fall across much of Europe, ski buffs are imagining with dread a once-unthinkable scene: Skiing in Zermatt in Switzerland while lifts idle across the border in Italy's Aosta valley.
The leaders of Italy and France are resisting pressure to reopen ski resorts before Christmas, pushing for European coordination so their industries don’t suffer during the pandemic while others flourish. But the Alpine countries of Switzerland and Austria could well be spoilers.
Ski resorts were one of the major sources of contagion in the deadly spring surge of COVID-19.
So far, restrictions to slow the curve of infections have kept lifts closed in Italy, France, Germany and Austria, as well as countries further east. But skiers are already heading to mountains in Switzerland, drawing an envious gaze from ski industry and local officials in mountain regions elsewhere on the continent who lost most of last season due to the virus. They are warning of irreversible economic damage if they are not permitted to open this season.
Both Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte and French President Emmanuel Macron said this week that pre-Christmas openings are unthinkable. While such skiing luminaries as world and Olympic champion Alberto Tomba argue that it is an individual sport conducted in the open air, the leaders point to the risks of contagion in crowded lift lines and lodges, as well as closed cable cars.
Top health officials in Italy appeared aghast when they were asked at a briefing Tuesday about the prospects for opening ski season, minutes after they had just reported a resurgence-high 853 deaths in a 24-hour period.
“I admit I have a difficult time inside commenting on 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.
French mountain industry representatives met with the French prime minister Monday to press to be able to reopen, but apparently their pleas weren’t heard.
“It seems impossible to me to imagine a reopening for the holidays, and much more preferable to favor reopening in January, in good conditions,’’ Macron said as he laid out plans Tuesday night for a gradual easing of the current lockdown.
Plans for reopening also remain on ice in the eastern countries of Poland, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic — although Serbia is prepping for the winter season in full swing, as if COVID-19 did not exist, counting on both domestic and foreign visitors.
Austria, whose current lockdown runs through Dec. 6, has been for months saying that it hoped to reopen the slopes this season and rejected Italy’s idea of keeping them closed until Jan. 10. On Wednesday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz pushed back against calls to write off this year’s ski season because of the pandemic.
In Bavaria, Germany’s largest ski destination, Governor Markus Soeder supported the idea, saying that if Europe’s borders are to remain open through the Christmas season there will have to be some sort of a blanket rule on keeping resorts closed.
In Switzerland, lifts are indeed in operation on Zermatt, next to the famed Matterhorn, and eastern Davos, near Austria. The famed resort of St. Moritz, a favorite destination for well-heeled Italians, is set to open about 60% of slopes this weekend.
But much of the fun of skiing getaways is missing: Zermatt's slopes may be open, but its restaurants are not — meaning a warm cocoa, mulled wine or cold beer at pubs or eateries after mountain runs is out.
So far, just 10% of the country’s 250 ski stations are open as only the highest altitudes have gotten enough snow, according to Switzerland Tourism spokeswoman Veronique Kanel. She said she didn't expect a flood of foreign skiers, noting strict travel rules still in place in many countries.
An official in the Swiss health ministry said Switzerland plans to join a discussion among officials from Alpine countries in the coming days on coordinating a plan for relaunching the ski season.
“Clearly the situation is complicated: It’s difficult to have only one country open its ski slopes when others close theirs. There needs to be coordination,” said the official on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Keaten contributed from Geneva. Angela Charlton in Paris and Dave Rising in Berlin also contributed.