Swiss authorities have rejected calls by doctors in Verbier to impose a strict confinement on the chic mountain resort, despite concerns over a surge in local coronavirus cases.
Doctors had reported a cluster of 60 infected people in the municipality of Val de Bagnes in canton Valais, which includes Verbier, although the figures are thought to be much higher. They called for the town to be confined and contacted the federal government for guidance.
On Monday, the Valais cantonal authorities released a statement external linksaying it had decided to rule out confinement, in accordance with the Swiss government. This followed talks with the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) and Val de Bagnes local authorities.
However, the canton ordered the commune to close public squares and playgrounds, as well as jacuzzis and spas in hotels, and to increase police patrols. It reiterated the current ban on public and private gatherings of more than five people.
“Several areas of epidemic exist in our country. Isolating them is not a solution to limit the spread of the disease,” it said, while urging the local population to remain at home “as much as possible”.
Popular ski resort
As of March 23, Switzerland has reported almost 9,000 positive coronavirus cases – of which 500 are in canton Valais – and 86 deaths.
The government ordered the closure of all ski resorts and lifts on March 13, but Verbier, which is a popular town in the Alps for both tourists and locals, remained busy up until recently. There are around 8,000 permanent residents registered in the chic sprawling mountain town, but during the busy winter season the number of inhabitants rises to 35,000.
As the coronavirus epidemic has spread in Switzerland, some have chosen to stay in their second homes in the mountains, a practice that is still allowed. Almost 60% of chalets and apartments in Val de Bagnes are second homes.
Local doctor Sabine Popescu told Swiss public radio, RTS, that people had been travelling to Verbier during the epidemic believing that the mountain resort was somehow safer.
“Very soon there will be no more tests or medicines to treat people and the only way is to halt the rise,” she said.
Dr. Hicham El Ghaoui estimated that 60% of the local population was infected. He told Reuters that the first cases were probably imported by people from Milan who came to Verbier after the Italian city was placed under lockdown last month.
Popescu thought the virus had been spread by young, asymptomatic partygoers in the resort’s bars and clubs. “How could all these young people who came to party in Verbier imagine they were vectors?” she said.
Quarantining a whole region is not allowed in Switzerland. Martin Dumermuth, director of the Federal Office of Justice, told reporters in Bern on Monday that cantons do not have the legal competence to close off whole areas, such as Verbier. However, this has happened in other European ski resorts and regions, such as Bansko in Bulgaria, Ischgl and St Anton in the Arlberg region in Austria, and Heiligenblut in Carinthia (Austria).