Swiss ski resorts face tougher restrictions as pressure grows from the EU to ban skiing

Abigail Butcher
·4-min read
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Sufficient testing capacity and hospital beds must be available for resorts to open under new rules

Ski resorts across Switzerland face further restrictions from Friday as pressure grows from the EU to ban skiing this winter.

Switzerland’s 26 cantons are today responding to draft proposals on tightening coronavirus measures drawn up by the Federal Office for Health (BAG). The proposals, leaked to the press on Monday, include limiting the number of households allowed to meet indoors to two until December 23, tighter rules for singing in groups, plus extensive detail on the operation of winter sports.

While a final decision on measures will not be confirmed until Friday by Alain Berset, head of the Federal Department of Home Affairs, The Tages Anzeiger newspaper reports that ski resorts will only be able to operate “if the epidemiological situation in the canton or affected region allows, if enough hospital beds are available to treat skiing accidents in addition to Covid sufferers, and if contact tracing works”. Sufficient testing capacity must also be available.

Cantons will continue to be responsible for issuing operational permits to ski resorts based on current infection rates, ICU availability and test/tracing — with power resting with the local governments to decide on the threshold. 

Berset is also expected to announce a clampdown on the number of skiers allowed on the mountain each day at individual resorts, along with tougher rules on mask wearing and social distancing in public places, plus a ban on take-away food from mountain restaurants. 

While the spread of new cases across Switzerland has now slowed from a daily peak of more than 10,000 early last month, the burden on hospitals remains high, with 77 per cent of ICU beds currently occupied. 

On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) urged nations to consider carefully the risks associated with skiing this winter. As Angela Merkel pushed EU member states once more to ban early-season skiing, Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme asked countries to look “very, very carefully” at the risks.

Coronavirus Switzerland Spotlight Chart - cases default
Coronavirus Switzerland Spotlight Chart - cases default

“Many people won’t be infected barrelling down the slopes on their skis,” said Ryan. “The real issues are going to come at airports, on buses, on ski lifts — pinch points in the skiing experience where people come together in large numbers.”

And today, French prime minister Jean Castex has called for random border controls to prevent French skiers going to neighbouring countries such as Switzerland, Spain, and possibly Austria if it allows resorts to reopen next week. 

In North America, most resorts are operating a reservation system to limit the number of skiers on the mountains at any one time, and Laax-Flims in the canton of Graubünden is the first Swiss resort to follow suit, but the prospect is more complicated for some other areas. 

Verbier, for example, shares its “4 Vallées” ski area with the villages Bruson, La Tzoumaz, Nendaz, Veysonnaz and Thyon, all of which provide multiple access points to its mountains. 

Verbier director of tourism Simon Wiget said: “We are studying if it’s possible to limit numbers but it’s very hard to control if people are going up and where they are going.”

Situated in the canton of Valais, which along with Geneva has recorded the highest number of cases in Switzerland, Verbier was one of the ski resorts hardest hit by Covid in March. Since it opened some slopes for weekends on 30 October, it has been working hard with police, the Commune de Bagnes and the Valais to introduce and regulate Covid measures. 

“We have employed extra personnel to ensure compliance around the resort including on buses and railways, in queues and on the street,” he said. “All the party places that were open in March are either closed or operating under the same rules as restaurants, with only table service.”

verbier - melody sky/verbier.ch
verbier - melody sky/verbier.ch

While he said he understood that skiers and Covid patients needing the same hospital “presents a problem”, he argued that the majority of ski accidents do not require intensive care. 

While resorts understand that “security of customers is the utmost importance” and are prepared for the “worst-case scenario”, Wiget stressed that cantons want to keep the mountains open for Christmas because there is such a huge link between ski tourism and the economy. 

“Not only the lift companies but everyone from producers of wine and food to the service industry,” he said. “If there’s an obvious reason to close we can understand it, but if it’s just fear, that’s a different matter.”