By Franciszek Dziduch
Late afternoon of 8 February: A crowd of AUC students, accompanied by big luggages and ski equipment, stood at Carolina MacGillavrylaan waiting for the bus to drive them to the ski resort of Saint-Sorlin-d’Arves in the French Alps. As every year, the trip was organised by Janket, an offshoot of AUC’s travel and excursion committee (Junket). This time, Janket collaborated with the Dutch wintersport organisation Totally Snow. The trip would end five days later – with at least 20 out of 75 participants having notified Janket to be infected with COVID-19. Many others reported to have had at least symptoms. How did this happen and could the coronavirus outbreak have been be prevented?
Marina, at whose request the name has been changed, is among the participants who ended up with a positive test on the day of arrival back in Amsterdam. Thinking back, she did not expect such an outbreak; prior to the trip, they had been advised to self-test. They were also informed that it was mandatory to have a vaccination certificate, preferably with the booster shot. Nevertheless, she recalls that while at one of the bus stops on the way to the skiing resort, two people who had felt unwell, self-tested positive and were sent back home. The trip took around 15 hours and although students were told to wear masks, many did not.
She recalls the initial days of the trip well: “We were skiing during the day and going to après-ski bars afterwards.” This is where the first COVID-19-related issue begins. As the Herring found out, the most popular bar destination, Yeti Bar, which is affiliated and promoted by Totally Snow, had a “no testing equals no COVID-19” policy amongst the staff and management. Therefore, there was no transparency regarding possible risk of being infected with COVID-19. Marina started to experience symptoms associated with COVID-19 on Friday, so she decided to stay in her room. Nonetheless, many, who felt unwell like her, did otherwise.
Ella, who also wishes to remain anonymous, started experiencing symptoms on Thursday. She remembers the moment when she got infected: One night, on the way to her friend’s room, she got stuck in the corridor of the hostel, which was packed with AUC students partying. “The corridor was packed, there were no masks, the people were screaming, spitting, there was lots of sweat and no social-distancing was enforced,” she complains. She also expresses frustration regarding Janket: “It was their responsibility to avoid COVID-19 by applying the restrictions, but instead, some of them were in this corridor”.
Both Marina and Ella recollect in horror the last day of the trip. The day before, they were suddenly informed that they will have to leave their accomodation at eight in the morning. The earliest shuttle that would take them down the slope departed two hours later; they had to wait outside in the cold. The original plan for that day had been for everyone to ski with those feeling unwell being unable to do so. Over twenty symptomatic people had to spend nine hours in a cold restaurant that only served fries as a meal. “It was tough – I had a fever, I was shivering,” Marina says. “The people, hungry, had to sleep on the couches, I remember I couldn’t come to myself and felt really bad,” concurs Ella. “I heard so many people saying ‘I’m not feeling well; I will test positive; I’m gonna get it’,” Marina says.
The bus to Amsterdam finally left around nine in the evening. Prior to the departure, one of the symptomatic girls passed out. “It was the worst bus trip of my life,” asserts Ella and goes on saying that “everyone was coughing and I was many times woken up by the sounds of vomiting.” Both girls informed the Herring that one girl had started experiencing epilepsy and was lying on the floor – nevertheless, the bus did not stop. In fact, there was only one twenty-minute break at a gas station in the entirety of the nine-hour bus trip. After arriving in Amsterdam, the trip’s WhatsApp group chat was overflowed by students informing others that they tested positive for COVID-19.
The biggest complaint expressed by both of the students was the lack of transparency regarding COVID-19 dangers from Janket and Totally Snow. In fact, representatives from both sides allegedly disincentivised self-testing throughout the whole trip. “Although I had symptoms, Janket recommended not to self-test, because I would have been left behind,” Marina says, and adds: “I didn’t know what to do”. Ella was also puzzled: “I feel like many people tried to keep their COVID-19 fear from Janket people, because they were apprehensive that they wouldn’t be able to get on the bus.” Mia, who also wishes for her name to be changed, believes that both organizations did not really care about COVID-19. “Everyone was pushing the responsibility to people above or below them. The trip was a huge mess, followed by an unclear communication or lack of it,” she concludes.
Not everyone felt the same about the ski trip. Julia Spruijt, a first-year Science major, stresses that she enjoyed the trip and that Janket did a good job. “I think that the COVID-19 issue was handled well – if you get infected, you can either panic or wait, because the worst has already happened,” she judges. Spruijt believes that the best approach was to enjoy the trip and isolate afterwards. She concludes saying that she wouldn’t want to be in the position of the Janket members. “I really respect that they put such a big effort into making the trip fun.”
The Herring also reached out to Janket. Third-year Social Science major Naomi Barendse admits that they were aware of the COVID-19 risk. Nevertheless, she also remarks that the chances of contracting it nowadays are high almost everywhere – at a bar or at the dorm party.
She emphasises that all of the participants were required to either possess a booster or recovery certificate to be eligible for the excursion. Prior to the trip, Totally Snow had informed them that – if someone tests positive – the person would not be able to go back to Amsterdam by bus and that they would have to pay for their prolonged stay, as well as for the independent return. Totally Snow’s recommendation was to not self-test throughout the trip, and to self-quarantine after returning. “The Board’s policy was to not leave anyone behind, unless there were circumstances that would require actual stepping in.”
As the number of people experiencing symptoms surged, they felt there was not much to do, since they would have to contact Totally Snow and be transparent with them, which could potentially result with the organisation insisting on everybody to self-test, which would lead to additional, unwanted costs. Furthermore, ski trips come with the potentiality of catching a flu, so they hoped it was just that. Barendse believes that “maybe COVID-19 infections were a better thing than spending a hundred more euros and leaving some people behind.”
She also states that Janket is only responsible for the logistics and for making sure that everyone gets to the destination, as well as that the trip was going smoothly: “People are free to make plans for themselves. Everyone on the trip was over 18 and we assumed that they would be responsible in their decision making. Your responsibility, your choice.” The Board is not fully aware how many people got ultimately infected with COVID-19, as everybody shared it on WhatsApp, so “it was not something we kept track of”, as they deemed it unnecessary. Lastly, Barendse assures that she mainly received positive feedback from the participants and she is glad that the majority enjoyed the trip. “For those who have complaints, I would urge you to do the evaluation which will be released next week, so that we can improve,” she finishes.
The Herring confronted Subweb Group – the parent company of Totally Snow – with AUC students’ allegations. Martine Langerak, spokesperson of Sunweb Group, replied that they “follow all local rules and regulations to make sure we can offer our guests a safe holiday”. Everyone before entering the bus was required to show a QR code. While they do not allow people with positive tests on the bus, they also do not expect people to get tested, as this is not enforced by rules and regulations from the government. They deny responsibility for their guests’ behaviour concerning this topic.
Totally Snow denied that they advised not to test, but rather informed people about what to do if the test comes out positive. The precautions follow isolating a positive person and letting them “contact their insurance company”. If more support is needed, the representatives “send them a specific link so that they can book a room in the near area and contact taxis to make it easier for the guest.” Langerak declares that “COVID-19 rooms” were available on site, meaning “rooms especially booked for COVID-19 cases to allow the infected people to isolate and take the time needed to contact their insurance”.