Post-summer COVID news: Viennese administration decides to leave national crisis committee

**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.

The Viennese administration decided to leave the national crisis committee, which city councillor for health Peter Hacker said this was officially due to scheduling issues.

Every morning at 9 am the committee discusses the newest data, which is inconvenient for preparing Viennese data to be ready at 2 pm, he said, adding that “I am against wasting staff resources in meetings rather than investing in analysis.”

In tackling the COVID-19 crisis, cooperation between the federal government and the city of Vienna has been difficult at times.

While government ministers have repeatedly criticised the mayor’s team for a lack of transparency and communication, the Viennese administration defended itself, saying that they are doing what they can.

Some observers see this conflict as politically driven: The mayor of Vienna is a social democrat, while the chancellor is from the conservative ÖVP, and both parties are facing each other off in the Viennese elections set for 11 October.

Meanwhile, a close associate of chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) tested positive for COVID-19 on 5 October.

All government members who were at risk were tested immediately and their appointments for Tuesday cancelled. The final results came in early Tuesday morning: the chancellor and all ministers tested negative. Kurz will still conduct his appointments today by phone.

Indepent report on COVID hotspot Ischgl slams Austrian government's handling

The Austrian ski resort of Ischgl became the European epicentre of coronavirus infections in March. The local government there has denied any responsibility, but a new independent commission report begs to differ. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Damning Ischgl report

An independent commission has criticised the crisis management of the Ischgl ski resort that became infamous in March as a coronavirus-hotspot. Reactions had been too slow, communication too diffuse, and the panic-like departure of tourists could have been controlled, according to the report. This comes after the local and federal governments were criticised for reacting too late but denied any wrongdoing.

 

An ailing tourism sector

Between May and August, hotel bookings in Austria decreased by almost a third compared to last year with bookings in Vienna suffering the most with a 82% drop during the same period, new data shows.

The gastronomy industry’s revenues dropped 61.1% between April and June compared to the same period in 2020.

Though both sectors could recoup their losses during the upcoming winter season, several European countries have recently designated Austria or some of its regions as risk zones and issued travel warnings.

Austria’s government laid out the country’s rules for winter tourism on 24 September to help preserve the tourist sector in the coming months.

While the Christmas markets can open and skiing will be allowed, so-called ‘après-ski’ parties will be banned.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz warned of the dangers related to the continued spread of COVID-19. “We must stop (its) growth,” he said, not only to preserve public health, but also jobs, particularly in the tourism industry. Tourism is “part of our identity,” he added.

Meanwhile, Austrian Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger is currently negotiating with the German government with the goal of easing Germany’s travel warnings for certain Austrian areas. These are damaging to the already ailing national tourism and gastronomy industry, especially with the crucial skiing season approaching. For now, however, Köstinger could not confirm whether any significant progress was made.

Previously, Köstinger had rolled out more regulations for the tourism and hospitality sectors, including forbidding people from standing and sitting close to each other.

The European Commission approved Austria’s proposal for a new aid package aimed at helping ailing businesses after a back-and forth between Austrian Finance Minister Gernot Blümel (ÖVP) and the familiar face of Martin Selmayr, now the Commission’s representative in Vienna.

While Austria’s minister had criticised Brussels for misunderstanding the severity of the crisis, Selmayr noted that the necessary changes to the proposal could have been made within a matter of hours.

East-West divide over closing hours

States in Western Austria have decided to force restaurants and bars to close earlier at 10pm rather than 1am as COVID-19 cases increased across the country.

Although Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) asked the rest of Austria, especially Vienna, to do the same, they have so far refused. Read more.

Salzburg governor Wilfried Haslauer (ÖVP) stated that one of the main reasons for the curfew was to prevent travel warnings, which are detrimental to winter tourism. “Short-sighted recklessness not only puts pressure on an entire business branch, but also threatens our entire country with travel warnings and a second lockdown”, said Haslauer.

This comes after the governent announced new coronavirus restrictions that came into force on 21 September, which include limiting private indoor gatherings to ten persons, making mask wearing mandatory at outdoor fairs and markets, as well as allowing only 10 people per table in restaurants.

The announcement came after Austria saw an increase in infections and hospitalisations over the past week, which prompted Germany to declare Vienna a risk zone on Wednesday and Denmark to do so for the whole country.

A strategic reserve of medical equipment

Austria bought up a “strategic reserve” of medical equipment, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Defence Minister Klaudia Tanner (both ÖVP) announced on 15 September.

The reserve will include 44.4 million surgical protection masks, 2.6 million respiratory masks and 991,000 rapid COVID-19 test kits which will be stored across five military sites

“We have learned from the challenges of the coronavirus crisis and are bracing for further challenges”, said Tanner.

Proposing a new COVID-19 law –  a series of criticisms

Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) presented on 14 September the revised version of the country’s new COVID-19 law, which would give the government the power to order citizens to only leave their homes for certain reasons, such as grocery shopping or sports. Now, it needs to pass parliament.

This comes after the Austrian constitutional court declared in July that the government’s COVID-19 regulations such as the closure of shops were illegal, and Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) then promised to revise the underlying law. Critics also claimed that the new legislation coming out of Anschober’s health ministry is also unconstitutional.

Of particular concern was the law’s language around banning entry from public spaces in the event of a second lockdown. Currently, the legislation claims that entry into “1. certain places or 2. public places in their entirety can be regulated by decree, insofar as this is necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The opposition is also very critical.  Spokesperson for the liberal NEOS, Gerald Loacker, has called it a “constitutional mess,” while SPÖ Vice Chair, Jörg Leichtfried, said it is a “borderline legislative proposal.”

Austrian health minister wants to ‘repair’ coronavirus measures following court ruling

Austria’s anti-coronavirus measures were partly illegal, as the country’s Constitutional Court confirmed last week. On Tuesday (28 July), Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) acknowledged the mistakes and announced plans to reorganise his ministry and amend the Epidemic Law. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Austria is also experiencing a second wave

Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz confirmed on 13 September that the country is experiencing the “start of the second wave”.

Wearing facemasks will become mandatory in the entire country for most public spaces, such as schools and museums.

“What we are experiencing now is the start of the second wave,” Kurz told a press conference on Sunday, adding that “soon, we will have reached one thousand new infections a day.”

Austria registered more than 850 new infections between Friday and Saturday, the past few weeks had seen a surge in new COVID-19 cases.

Before the weekend, on 9 September, Austria had recorded 563 new COVID-19 cases within the past 24 hours, meaning the country was coming close to April levels – when the pandemic started.

“For me personally, these numbers are too high”, Austrian health minister Rudolf Anschober has said. Vienna and Tyrol are the regions with the highest new infection numbers.

COVID-19 recommendations instead of restrictions

Austria’s government presented on 2 September a new set of coronavirus recommendations as an alternative to implementing new restrictions.

While most of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and Health Minister Rudolf Anschober’s (Green) advice was largely consistent with previous announcements urging everyone to wear masks in indoor public spaces and maintain their distances, the government is now recommending private gatherings be limited to 25 people.

Austria’s opposition was critical of what they called “show politics.”

“A long list of recommendations for the population – why do the chancellor and three ministers have to appear for this?” wondered social democrat health spokesperson, Philip Kucher (SPÖ).

Nervous for the fall

Since July, coronavirus case numbers have begun to tick up in Austria, and in late August, new daily infections have crossed the 300 marker, which has previously not been seen in the country since April.

With these new case numbers, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) struck a serious tone in a speech on 1 September, warning Austrians to remain vigilant and adhere to the coronavirus measures. This is particularly important with the colder temperatures and people spending more time inside.

“The summer was a time of recharging our batteries and, yes, of carelessness. But now things are getting serious again,” he said.

Read more on the measures taken before summer break here:

Local Austrian authorities under fire after new COVID-19 cluster erupted in tourist resort

The EURACTIV Network provides you with the latest news on how the country is dealing with the coronavirus health crisis.

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