Austria announces new COVID-19 restrictions

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) leaves no doubt about the seriousness of the situation. [EPA | Roland Schlager]

From Wednesday (1 April) at the latest, mouth and nose protection masks will be obligatory in Austria’s supermarkets. People in COVID-19 risk groups are no longer allowed to go to work, and hotels are closed to tourists. Random sample tests are set to bring clarity to the country’s unrecorded cases.

The Austrian government is tightening its measures to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. At a press conference on Monday (30 March), Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) said he understood that citizens want a return to normality. But the fight against the virus was “not a sprint, but a marathon.”

Austria is currently experiencing “the calm before the storm” in comparison to Italy. Many people can not even imagine what is in store for Austria, Kurz warned.

Therefore, the government is further tightening the existing restrictions.

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Mask wearing compulsory in supermarkets

The most publicly visible change will be the compulsory use of masks in supermarkets. It is expected that on Wednesday (30 March), mouth-nose masks will be distributed at supermarket entrances. From then on, these masks must be worn in shops.

This is no substitute for distance, Kurz emphasised: the mandatory safety distance of one meter will continue to apply.

In addition, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) announced that further regulation will come into force in supermarkets to guarantee compliance with safety distances, such as floor markings or capping shop capacity at peak times.

Risk groups are also to be given greater protection. Employees from these groups must be placed either in the home office or off duty. Access to hospitals will be further restricted and visits even further reduced. Furthermore, the use of hotels for tourism will be completely prohibited.

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Big Data “becomes another factor”

Afterwards, Anschober spoke about tests. Last week, the government announced that in the long run, it would carry out up to 15,000 tests a day.

He now made it clear that currently, only 2,000 random tests are to be conducted on people including medical personnel, in addition to tests of suspected cases. This would allow a more accurate estimate of the number of unreported cases by the end of the week.

Anschober also mentioned the use of Big Data to combat the virus. Chancellor Kurz later said in response to journalist inquiries that the internet and especially mobile phones could be used more.

According to Kurz, this is supposed to “become another factor” and specifically mentioned an “improvement” of the Red Cross smartphone app, through which risk contacts can be tracked.

Rescue Commander Gerry Foitik of the Austrian Red Cross already explained via Twitter that the collection of contact data via the app is to be automated, with the users’ opt-in consent.

After that, however, the government “will soon be at the end of the line with our measures,” Kurz said. Therefore, combatting the virus will require participation from each and every person, because “the virus does not eradicate itself.” There will only be real normality once the virus is defeated.

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“Life threateners”

Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) once again emphasised that compliance with the measures will be strictly controlled, and those in violation will be punished. So far there have been 2,046 violations reported. He called those who do not adhere to the measures and recommendations “life threateners.”

Kurz also explained that once the measures are relaxed, shops will be opened first while schools and universities would then follow.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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