A Chilling Question Divides Europe: Open Ski Slopes or Keep Them Closed?

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Weeks before the coronavirus pandemic swept across Europe in February, some of the first virus clusters on the continent appeared in ski resorts in the Alps, leading to cascading outbreaks as ski enthusiasts returned home.

Now, with the Christmas holiday season in sight, leaders in France, Germany and Italy indicated this week that ski slopes would remain closed at least until the end of the year, wary of repeating the waves of infections fueled by negligence in the early days and relaxed restrictions over summer.

Yet with Austria and Switzerland vowing to reopen their resorts, a high-altitude rivalry is once again putting to the test attempts by European countries to coordinate their response to the pandemic when it comes to tourism.

European nations have for months struggled to adopt a unified response, each imposing their own restrictions. And while many imposed new lockdowns this month, some, like France, are easing restrictions ahead of the holidays. Poland and Hungary also blocked a landmark agreement forged by the European Union to raise a 750 billion euro ($894 billion) relief fund.

European tourism has been hit hard by the pandemic, with up to 11.5 million jobs in the sector at risk, according to the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has called for a European Union-wide ban on ski tourism, and President Emmanuel Macron of France has argued that the risks linked to the coronavirus make it impossible to allow winter sports. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy said the winter holidays would lead to a third wave of infections and called for a coordinated response by at least these three countries.

A closed restaurant in the alpine ski resort Sestriere, Italy, on Thursday.Credit…Marco Bertorello/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But the inconsistent restrictions across the Alps have already created tensions.

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austria has called efforts to coordinate the closing of ski resorts “exaggerated,” pointing out the European Union has no say in how member states handle sports.

On top of increased risks of widespread coronavirus infections during the winter holidays, the authorities in France fear that ski-related injuries could overwhelm health care facilities that fared better during the second wave of the pandemic than in the first.

Amid the first wave, many Alps resorts remained open until mid-March. The ski and party hub of Ischgl in western Austria did so even after the authorities in Iceland informed Austria’s health ministry that a group of

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