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. [Shutterstock]

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

In the picturesque village of St. Wolfgang in Upper Austria, a new coronavirus cluster was identified at the end of July, with mostly workers in the tourism sector being affected.

Throughout Austria, the cluster affected a total of 107 persons with about 1,500 coronavirus tests having been conducted.  The picture of the “second Ischgl” quickly went through the media. Most of the new infections were connected to hotels and bars, and 18 businesses overall were affected.

Although local authorities unlocked about €1 million in emergency aid so far,the country’s  opposition criticised the government’s management of the situation. Christian Deutsch, business manager for the Social Democrats (SPÖ), called it “chaotic” and demanded uniform national norms for handling clusters

Previously, a cluster of coronavirus infections has been identified in a meat-processing facility in the region of Lower Austria.

Among the employees, 29 tested positive to the virus, with 40 tests still pending. It is the fourth COVID-19 cluster in an Austrian slaughterhouse in recent weeks and opposition parties are criticising the facility’s working conditions.

Meanwhile, wearing face masks will become mandatory again as of 24 July in grocery stores, post offices and banks as the number of daily COVID-19 infections surpassed the 100-mark, the government decided on 21 July.

Previously, masks had been mandatory in all shops up until mid-June.

The government was supposed to decide this matter on 19 July. However, as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) was still at the European Council in Brussels at that point, the decision was postponed.

Meanwhile, as of 24 July, travellers from high-risk countries can only enter Austria with a negative PCR test no older than 72 days, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (ÖVP) told reporters on 22 July.

By comparison, Austrian citizens and residents in “reasonable exceptional cases”, will have 48 hours upon entry to do a test.

Up until now, it was possible to enter Austria from high-risk countries without having a negative PCR test as long as travellers would self-quarantine for 14 days right after crossing the border.

Already, aeroplanes from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegowina, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldavia and Egypt have been banned from landing in Austria due to these countries seeing increases in infection rates, the Austrian foreign ministry announced.

On 8 July, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg had already announced that travellers from Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania would have to undergo a 14-day quarantine before entering the country.

The local government of Upper Austria decided on 7 July to make wearing masks in public spaces like shops and restaurants mandatory after the measure was abolished throughout the country in mid-June.

The decision comes after the region saw a significant surge in COVID-19 cases last week, most of which can be traced back to slaughterhouses.

As a way to curb the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) announced a new screening programme.

The new programme will include up to 30,000 voluntary tests per week and will also be available to persons without symptoms who work in potential high-risk areas.

From Tuesday to Wednesday (7-8 July), Austria registered more than 100 new coronavirus cases per day, which is the first three-figure-rise in weeks. 

This comes after Austria experienced a weekend (4-5 July) spike with most cases linked to three slaughterhouses in Upper Austria, forcing its local government to make the wearing of face masks in administrative buildings mandatory again.

The Austrian government warned against travel to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Albania, Kosovo, Northern Macedonia and Montenegro, according to information published on the foreign ministry’s website on 31 June.

Austrians have been requested to leave these countries given the increasing number of coronavirus infections there.

By comparison, Tuesday’s joint EU decision provided for the lifting of entry restrictions for 14 third countries, including Serbia and Montenegro. 

This did not change anything in the Austrian border regime. Even before the travel warnings, travellers from these Western Balkan countries had to undergo a two-week quarantine if they were unable to show a negative coronavirus test.

About 60% of Austrians intend to spend their summer holidays in the country’s mountains and lakes, even though the country reopened its borders a week ago, according to a survey by Gallup. Among those surveyed, only 28% intend to go abroad.

The main reason was not a fear of contracting COVID-19, but rather the perceived threat of getting stuck when borders shut down again.

As of Tuesday (18 August), Austria registered 23,534 COVID-19 cases, of which 164 were recorded in the past 24 hours. It also recorded 729 COVID-related deaths and 20,765 recoveries. Many of the new cases reported over the weekend (4-5 July) are linked to outbreaks in slaughterhouses.

While Austria has seen a steady decline of known COVID-19 infections in the past few weeks, the number of cases increased again on Thursday evening (18 June). Austria’s health ministry reported 434 COVID-19 patients as being actively sick, which is 45 more than last Thursday. At the same time, 72 patients were in hospital beds and eight remained in intensive care. 

Border controls and ramping up summer tourism 

One country after another, Austria announced the re-opening of borders with neighbouring countries. As of 4 June, the Austrian government decided that travellers coming from Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary would no longer have to go through border controls.

However, although Italy remained a question mark as the government feared the virus would spread over the Southern border, Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg has announced that anyone travelling from Italy as of 16 June can do so without going through border checks.

Like many other European countries, Austria opened its borders on the night of Monday (15 June). No longer will people crossing the land border have to show a negative COVID-19-test or spend two weeks in quarantine, only a special warning for Lombardy remains.

Already on 4 June, the Austrian government decided that travellers from Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary could enter the country without having to go through border controls.

For other EU member states, the same restrictions were lifted, except for Sweden, Portugal and Spain, for which the full freedom to travel is set to be restored only on 1 July.

Austria lifting coronavirus border checks with all neighbours bar Italy

Austria is lifting coronavirus-related border restrictions including quarantines for all neighbouring countries except Italy as of Thursday (4 June), the foreign minister said on Wednesday.

This comes after Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) announced that the country intends to reopen its eastern borders at a joint press conference with his Hungarian, Slovakian, and Czech counterparts on 25 May.

Also, Austrian flag carrier Austrian Airlines (AUA) will start flying again on 15 June, starting with European destinations and Tel Aviv. The expectation is to have 40 destinations on its programme by the end of the month.

Meanwhile, on 13 May, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz announced that the country will completely reopen its borders with Germany and Switzerland as of 15 June, adding that Austria will begin reducing its border controls to random checks as of 15 May.

While Kurz did not want to make any promises regarding the Italian border when asked by a journalist at a press conference, he assured that Austria had been having “very intense contact” with its Eastern neighbours on the matter.

Previously, the Austrian government announced it would keep border controls with Italy and Slovenia in place until 31 May, despite being originally set to phase out on 7 May. Until then, a certificate confirming a negative COVID-19 test, which is no older than four days, could be presented at the border.

This comes after calls to ‘cautiously’ revive the tourism industry for the summer.

Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) told the Monday edition of the newspaper Bild on 27 April that this “only be possible again carefully and step by step.” These plans would involve bilateral country agreements and certain precautions, such as only allowing visitors from countries with relatively low levels of infection.

‘Stopp-Corona’: Austria’s controversial COVID-19 tracking app

Austria’s COVID-19 tracing app known as “Stop-Corona” was again endorsed by the government on Tuesday (2 June).

However, during a press conference, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) said “discussions about mandatory use are off the table,” but nevertheless emphasised the app’s importance for opening up the country further.

Since the start of the crisis, the Austrian government has advocated for the development of an app to help track the spread of the virus. The app, ‘Stopp-Corona,’ was launched by the Austrian Red Cross on 25 March, but has had to contend with data privacy concerns and questions of whether it will remain voluntary.

The first such controversy came in early April when a senior conservative politician of the governing ÖVP floated the idea of making it mandatory. In response, Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) was forced to deny the statement and promise the app would remain voluntary.

Later, politicians in the country’s opposition parties worried that updates to the country’s pandemic law, which excluded “certain groups of people” from events, could be used as a back door to making the app mandatory.

Then again, in early May, the government was forced to contradict its own advisor regarding the app. In a 4 May interview with the Financial Times, Antonella Mei-Pochtler, a close advisor to chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) since 2017, said forcing tourists to install a tracing-app is on the table, as a condition for access to the country.

Hours later, the country’s health ministry denied that such an idea had ever been discussed, and emphasised that using the app will remain voluntary.

Despite these ongoing concerns from privacy activists, the NGO known as epicenter.works published an analysis of the app, concluding that it follows a solid “privacy-by-design” approach. However, they also demanded that its source code should be made public, and on 22 April, the Austrian Red Cross promised to do just that.

More reporting on Austria’s coronavirus tracking app:

Austrian response to EU recovery

Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s initiative against the Merkel-Macron EU recovery plan was a “mistake”, the leader of the Austrian Greens, Werner Kogler, said in a TV interview on Saturday (30 May).

When Austria’s Conservative-Green coalition was inaugurated in January, observers predicted that EU policy could become a bone of contention between the two parties.

After the presentation of the Franco-German plan for a European Recovery on 21 May, Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) lead the charge of its critics, acting as a spokesperson for the “Frugal Four” – Austria, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark.

The Austrian Chancellor also announced their intentions to work on a counter-proposal.

'Frugal Four' present counter-plan to Macron-Merkel EU recovery scheme

The “Frugal Four” (Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden) presented their own draft for an EU recovery fund in a ‘non-paper’ sent to the EU capitals on Saturday (23 May). The most important point: aid money must be repaid. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Exit Strategy

In the future, some parts of the country could open up sooner than others because “it has become reality by now that the developments are different,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) told web-TV-channel oe24.tv on 22 May as six of the country’s nine states hadn’t recorded any new infections over the third weekend of May, according to the newspaper Der Standard.

In a televised address to honour the 75th anniversary of the founding of the country’s Second Republic on 27 April, Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) promised an Austrian “comeback,” vowing to regain freedoms as soon as possible. Looking to history, he claimed “as Austria and as a European community of states, we have emerged from all these crises stronger than before. And that’s how it will be this time, I am sure.”

Meanwhile, the first 350,000 of around 700,000 children who had been doing online classes for weeks went back to school on 18 May. In school, pupils had to respect social distancing and wear masks at all times.

According to Education Minister Heinz Fassmann (ÖVP), this is a test run for autumn., as schools should reopen fully by then if everything goes according to plan. Yet, in case the country’s were hit by a second, the currently tested approach could allow schools to stay open.

This comes after restrictions were lifted and came into effect on 1 May, which Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) announced on 28 April.

People were allowed to leave their homes without having to state a reason if stopped by the police. However, everyone still had to keep a one-metre distance from one another and wear masks in shops and public transport.

Gatherings in public of up to ten people were again allowed with up to 30 people being allowed to attend funerals. While restaurants reopened on 15 May with four people per table allowed, hotels and public bathing places reopened in the last week of May.

The government’s exit strategy was first rolled out on 6 April, when the government announced that small shops could assume activity as of 14 April and gave a timeline for restarting restaurants and hotels in mid-May.

More on Austria’s COVID-19 restrictions here:

Austria's government presents COVID-19 exit schedule

While small shops in Austria will be allowed to reopen on 14 April and all trade will be permitted from 1 May onwards, gastronomy and hotels will follow in mid-May at the earliest, with current initial restrictions extended until the end of April. According to Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the aim is “to get out of the crisis faster than others”.

Ischgl: Austrian ski resort turns into COVID-19 hotspot

In the continuing story surrounding the town of Ischgl, news magazine Profil published a story on 16 May accusing the Tyrolean local government of ignoring a directive by the Austrian health ministry from February, asking everyone who came into contact with COVID-infected persons to be sent home to self-quarantine.

Officials reacted via a press statement, where they argued that the definition of “contact person” had been changed days after the directive. They also “demanded” that Profil publishes the press release within 24 hours and in the next print edition. In response, Profil‘s editor-in-chief, Christian Rainer, tweeted that “Tyrol tries to intimidate journalists through threats”.

The politicians then backtracked, calling the statement a mere “request for a correction”.

The ski-resort Ischgl in the Tyrolean Alps became infamous in March when various European states claimed that their citizens contracted the coronavirus there. Despite warnings from Iceland, local leaders decided to keep hotels and bars open.

The public prosecutor is now officially looking into a “suspicion of negligent endangerment of humans through transmittable disease” after the prosecution received a “very detailed and comprehensive” report on the case in early May. He also said that 321 people who claimed to have contracted the virus in Tyrolean ski resorts have bolstered the proceedings as victims.

How an Austrian ski paradise became a COVID-19 hotspot

Ischgl, an Austrian ski resort, has achieved tragic international fame: hundreds of tourists are believed to have contracted the coronavirus there and taken it home with them. The Tyrolean state government is now facing serious criticism. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Coronavirus crisis fund and other economic measures

Since the start of the crisis, the Austrian government has implemented a series of aid packages intended to help secure jobs and provide companies with liquidity and tax relief.

After the initial funding of €4 billion was spent in a matter of days, it increased the aid to €38 billion on 18 March.

Channelling former ECB-president Mario Draghi, Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) said the state will do “whatever it takes, at whatever cost, for jobs and businesses.”

In a later session on 3 April, Austrian MPs passed the third round of aid legislation.

Until 30 June, tenants who could not pay rent were protected from eviction, and their contracts cannot be cancelled. They will have until 31 December to pay back the rent.

Low-income families received support from a fund worth €30 million. Other changes include a guarantee of accident insurance when working from home and a three-month-moratorium on loans of consumers and small enterprises.

When it comes to the number of short-time workers in Austria, which peaked as a result of the lockdown, has now dropped to 812,745 as of 23 June, which is 326,000 fewer than the figure for mid-June. This is because not many companies have opted to prolong their short-time regime, Labour Minister Christine Aschbacher (ÖVP) told a press conference. The number of unemployed also dropped by 10,520 compared to last week, to 422,765 on 23 June.

Having spent two days in “governmental retreat,” Austria’s executive branch left the chancellery with a new set of fiscal support measures ready to be presented.

All in all, a total of €19 billion will be spent on “rescue, relief and investment”, Finance Minister Gernot Blümel (ÖVP) told a press conference. The package would raise Austria’s debt to 90% of its GDP.

Measures include one-off payments to unemployed and families, a degressive tax-depreciation mechanism and a prolongation of emergency subsidies on businesses’ fixed costs.

Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) emphasised the package’s €2 billion, which will be spent on climate-friendly building reconstruction, renewable energy production and research into climate-friendly technology, among other things. The agricultural and forestry sectors will also benefit from the package.

On 16 June, Vice-chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) said – in reference to taxing the wealthy to help Austria recover from the coronavirus crisis – that “of course there will be a contribution by millionaires”, and that it would be “within this term”. 

Back in April, Vice-chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens) first proposed to introduce a wealth tax for the rich but quickly backtracked, noting that it wasn’t the time to resolve the issue at the time but when the bill for the emergency measures has to be paid.

Meanwhile, Austria’s flagship carrier, Austrian Airlines AG, announced on 7 May it would be letting go 1,100 of its 7,000 staff until 2023. Those who remain would have their salaries cut by at least 13% with potentially even bigger cuts for high earners, according to media reports.

As the group continues to lead public bailout negotiations with the government, for which the Austrian Greens already announced they would insist on sustainability measures as one of the conditions, state secretary in the Austrian ministry for climate protection, environment and transport, Magnus Brunner (ÖVP), has said that insolvency of the flag carrier could not be ruled out.


Austria puts its economy on ice

Austria’s economy has come to a standstill. To get companies through the dry spell, it is filling a crisis fund with €38 billion to keep them afloat until the economy restarts after the crisis. EURACTIV Germany reports.

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