INTERNATIONAL NEWS - "It's so frustrating! They are having a laugh," vented skier Matteo Morsia, after the long-awaited reopening Monday of Italy's resorts was postponed at the last minute over fresh coronavirus fears.
The 27-year-old travelled 200 kilometres (120 miles) to the Italian Alps from Milan to take advantage of the first day of skiing this season - only for the government to announce on Sunday evening that they could not open.
Morsia claimed a refund for his ski pass and returned home, but for those running the Cima Piazza Happy Mountain resort in Valdidentro, near Bormio, there is no such easy fix.
"It's a disaster. For a week now, we have been readying the slopes for the opening and preparing the health protocol," said Denis Trabucchi, a 35-year-old ski instructor.
"This last-minute announcement is unacceptable."
He was particularly angry given scenes in many Italian cities this weekend of streets and outdoor restaurants packed with people enjoying the winter sun.
"We see images of throngs of people in city centres, whereas we're here in the open air," he told AFP.
Trabucchi is one of around 3,000 instructors in Italy's northern Lombardy region who have been on furlough since March 8, when the ski lifts closed under last year's coronavirus lockdown.
Resorts had hoped to reopen before Christmas, then after New Year, and then on February 15. But in the first public act of Mario Draghi's new government that was sworn in on Saturday, this has now been delayed until March 5.
The Swiss and Austrian ski resorts are open, but Italy, like France, is still waiting for the green light.
The timing of the latest postponement sparked outrage among business owners and politicians, with far-right leader Matteo Salvini - who is part of the new government - among those weighing in.
"You can't say on Sunday that on Monday everything changes," he said - particularly in the winter tourism sector, which is worth between 10 and 12 billion euros a year, according to the agricultural body Coldiretti.
Luca Zaia, the governor of the northern Veneto region, added: "Our operators prepared the slopes, hired staff, turned on the heating in hotels... It's not just about support, they (the government) have to pay for the damage."
The decision comes against a backdrop of warnings about a resurgence of Covid-19 infections in Italy, where more than 93,000 people with the virus have died since it hit the country one year ago.
"The variants are a source of concern, we must continue to be vigilant," Health Minister Roberto Speranza said Sunday.
Lack of respect
Happy Mountain, a little resort with a spectacular view of the Cima Piazzi glaciers, was hoping to receive around 300 people for the opening day Monday - but instead, it was mostly deserted.
Giovanni Battisti Migliori, a 61-year-old doctor with a salt-and-pepper beard and fluorescent sunglasses, was one of the few coming down the slope - but only after he walked up himself.
"I'm so angry... it shows a lack of respect towards the snow sector," he said, boiling over despite the freezing temperatures.
The delay affects hundreds of companies, from ski lift operators to hotels, shops, restaurants.
"The money they spent getting ready to reopen is all lost, it's money thrown out the window," said the mayor of Valdidentro, Massimiliano Trabucchi.
But not everybody is unhappy.
"Opening up to skiers was good news for business, but less good for the virus," said Mauro Pancheri, 67, who owns the Bar Jolly, next to the legendary Stelvio Slope in Bormio.
A few metres away, 2,000 pairs of skis are lined up in Celso Sport, waiting to be hired.
"Our clients are renting snow shoes, but not skis," said its owner, Marina Compagnoni.
"They made us believe that the slopes would reopen, but it's delayed again. All I want is some clarity so we can organise ourselves."