Austria still has a raft of Covid-19 restrictions in place. The most severe include a full lockdown for people without proof of 2G (full vaccination or recovery from Covid-19), which has been in place since November 15th last year, and is currently set to remain until at least the end of January
But political support for the measure, which is difficult to enforce in practice, is waning with all three opposition parties voting against it in the last National Council vote.
Other measures include the current 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars, and the requirement for non-essential retail businesses to carry out checks of customers’ 2G proof. Nightclubs and apres ski venues are completely closed and have been since November, and alongside these restrictions there are other rules in place including a legal requirement to wear FFP2 masks in most public spaces, and a recommendation for home-working wherever possible.
Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) has long been against the stringent Covid measures, and in recent weeks there are signs political support is waning from across the political spectrum, with all three opposition parties voting against the most recent extension of the lockdown for the unvaccinated.
The NEOS have called for an end to the partial lockdown, as have some leading figures in the SPÖ.
The governors of Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Carinthia and Burgenland, of the ÖVP, ÖVP, SPÖ and SPÖ respectively and have called for an end to the 10pm curfew and lockdown for the unvaccinated.
The Head of Retail at Austria’s Chamber of Commerce, Rainer Trefelik, has called for both the end to the lockdown for the unvaccinated and the requirement for retail businesses to check 2G proof.
In Vienna, centre-left mayor Michael Ludwig has said that he preferred not to speculate ahead of the discussions, stating that it causes confusion if different politicians each give their own thoughts.
And the Greens, the party of Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein, have generally been more cautious than the other parties. In Tyrol, the governor’s deputy is a Green Party member, and has said she would prefer to wait until the Omicron wave is past its peak before any relaxations are brought in.
What are the arguments for and against easing restrictions?
The main argument in favour of keeping the restrictions is caution, to continue curbing the spread of the virus until Austria is definitely past the peak of the wave.
One question here is exactly how effective the current rules are at limiting the spread.
Tyrol governor Günther Platter said the 10pm curfew had little “epidemiological sense” due to the likelihood that people would continue to mix in private homes after this time.
And since its introduction, the lockdown for unvaccinated people has been criticised as difficult to enforce, although police have stepped up their checks on busy areas.
Another question is whether it is still justified to impose such severe limitations on citizens in the interest of curbing the spread of the virus, particularly given the fact that the Omicron variant is associated with lower risks of severe illness, despite its higher transmissibility. This is a tough balance to strike, because some people will still get severely ill from Omicron, especially those in high risk groups.
But some other countries in Europe are beginning to lift restrictions as part of the process of ‘living with the virus’.
That includes the Netherlands, where bars, restaurants and cultural venues are re-opening after over a month despite case numbers still rising; Denmark, which plans to lift all restrictions by the end of the month despite a seven-day incidence rate over 5,000; and Spain, where the government plans to treat Covid like flu by relaxing both restrictions and the close monitoring of new cases.
The Spanish government has made the argument that we are in a different situation in the pandemic than we were at the start or even one year ago. While Spain can boast a much higher vaccination uptake than Austria, three quarters of the total Austrian population have now had at least one dose, and much more is known about the virus.
The situation is different here too: When the lockdown for the unvaccinated was first brought in, the number of people in Austria’s ICUs for Covid was around 600 while today the number is just below 200 — though there’s always a lag between a rise in cases and a rise in hospital and intensive care admissions, so this is likely to rise. The governors of Vorarlberg and Carinthia are among the politicians who have pointed to this change as justification for lifting the partial lockdown.
Austria is also introducing its vaccine mandate from February, which is one reason that spokespeople for the retail sector have said the task of checking 2G proof should no longer fall to their workers.
So far, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein has not confirmed any plans to relax the current restrictions given the continued rise in cases amid the Omicron wave.
During a visit to a healthcare centre in Vienna on Tuesday, he told reporters that the measures are constantly evaluated and would only remain in place as long as they were “epidemiologically necessary”.
The government doesn’t unilaterally decide on Covid measures. It communicates regularly with the Covid Crisis Coordination Commission (Gecko) made up of scientific experts, and decisions are made between the government and the heads of Austria’s nine regions.
It is likely that the lockdown for people without 2G will be extended for another ten days on Friday, to avoid a gap between this and the vaccine mandate, which will be confirmed at the start of February, but Austria’s Minister for the Constitution Karoline Edtstadler has already said she wants to review it at this point.
‘The pandemic is not over’: Vienna keeps mask rule in public transport
Austria's capital has decided to keep mandatory FFP2 masks in public transport but is dropping them in supermarkets.
Published: 24 May 2022 21:52 CEST
Austria’s capital Vienna will still have mandatory usage of FFP2 masks even if the federal government is dropping the requirement in the rest of the country.
It will still be mandatory in Vienna to wear masks when public transport, pharmacies, doctors’ offices, and hospitals, SPÖ Mayor Michael Ludwig announced this Tuesday.
People no longer will need to wear masks in supermarkets and other essential trade, though. The decision was taken after a meeting with the city crisis committee and health authorities, according to the mayor.
“The pandemic is not over yet. We will remain on the consistent and safe path”, Ludwig said.
Earlier this Tuesday, Austria’s Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) had announced the country would “pause” mask requirements from June 1st in all but health establishments during the summer months, as reported.
Rauch justified the decision by saying that the coronavirus numbers, both of new infections and of hospitalised people, have significantly dropped and maintained a downwards trend for weeks.
“The number of new infections has fallen, as well as the number of people in hospitals due to Covid-19, for several weeks now. This is good news”, he said.
Since the last major easing step in mid-April, the FFP2 obligation has only been in force in enclosed spaces of hospitals and homes, public transport and taxis, in the customer area of vital trade, in party traffic of administrative authorities and in institutions for the practice of religion outside trade fairs.
Die Pandemie ist noch nicht vorbei. Wir bleiben auf der konsequenten und sicheren Seite. Das Tragen der #FFP2 Maske bleibt in @Stadt_Wien in öffentlichen Verkehrsmitteln, Apotheken, Ordinationen und Spitälern aufrecht. /1
However, the federal government sets out the minimum standard for the country, but the different states may adopt stricter measures. Vienna has often kept tougher regulations during the pandemic, including a more extended period when only vaccinated or recovered people were allowed in bars and restaurants.
The Viennese mayor also commented on the suspended vaccine mandate law, stating that vaccination protects and the city would have a “corresponding vaccination campaign soon”.
Ludwig added that he would demand the same from the federal government. “All of this is done to protect the health of the Viennese population”, he said.
Austria this Tuesday reported 2,177 new coronavirus infections after 185,230 PCR tests, according to the Health Ministry. Currently, there are 596 people hospitalised with Covid-19 and 57 in intensive care units.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,607 people have died from Covid-19 in the country.