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Trial starts over ‘super-spreader’ COVID outbreak at Austrian ski town

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A civil trial opened in Austria on Friday over the government”s handling of a coronavirus outbreak at the popular Ischgl ski resort in March 2020 that led to thousands of people getting infected.

The outbreak is considered one of Europe’s earliest “super-spreader” events of the pandemic.

The case – the first of 15 lawsuits accusing the government of mishandling COVID-19 outbreaks in Ischgl and other resorts in the Tyrol province – is brought by the widow and son of 72-year-old Hannes Schopf, who died after contracting the virus at the resort.

The family is seeking about €100,000 in compensation from the government and the case is supported by Austria’s Consumer Protection Association, which said it is open to a negotiated settlement.

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According to lawyer Alexander Klauser, the list of official failures is long. He cited a report by an independent commission of experts last October, which claimed a first alert was issued as early as March 5 by Iceland that its nationals returned from Ischgl contaminated and that the alarm signs were ignored by the Austrian authorities. However, the commission didn’t find evidence that political or business pressure played a role in the decisions.

“By March 8, it was clearly established that tourists at Ischgl had contracted the virus, but the reaction was too weak, too slow and too late,” Klauser lamented.

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The lawsuit also claims that the manner in which the lockdown was imposed at the resort a few days later by Chancellor Sebastian Kurz precipitated the catastrophe. Schopf’s widow claims that her husband caught the virus during the mismanaged evacuation when he was forced to be with other sick tourists.

According to Austria’s Consumer Protection Association, of the 6,000 people who claim to have contracted the virus in Ischgl and the surrounding area, five per cent suffer from symptoms of long COVID, including headaches, sleep disturbance and shortness of breath. 32 people died in total.

“The Austrian Republic should accept its responsibility,” said Klauser, adding that the refusal so far “prolongs” the suffering of the victims’ families.

Contacted for comment by AFP, the Federal Attorney’s office, which represents the state, said it “will not comment on active proceedings”.

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