**This article is continuously updated with the latest developments.
After the Franco-German duo presented their €500 billion recovery programme, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) announced a “proposal with our own ideas” coordinated by the so-called ‘Frugal Four’ (Austria, Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands), which would “stimulate the European economy while avoiding mutualisation of debt.”
The Austrian chancellor had already voiced his discontent with Merkel’s and Macron’s joint proposal as it would allow for grants, which the frugal states oppose, insisting on loans instead.
Meanwhile, the first 350,000 of around 700,000 children who have been doing online classes for weeks went back to school on Monday (18 May). Social distancing can thus be maintained and pupils must wear masks at all times.
To Minister of Education Heinz Fassmann (ÖVP), this is a test run for autumn. According to plan, by then schools should reopen fully. But just in case a second wave of infections would lead to another lockdown, the currently tested approach could allow schools to stay open, relieving parents.
As of Wednesday (20 May), Austria registered 16,275 COVID-19 cases with 632 deaths. 14,678 have recovered.
Ischgl: Austrian ski resort turns COVID-19 hotspot
In the continuing story around the town of Ischgl, on Saturday (16 May), news magazine Profil published a story accusing the Tyrolean local government of ignoring a directive by the Health Ministry from February, asking all contact persons of Corona-infected individuals to be sent to home quarantine.
The officials reacted via press statement, where argued that the definition of “contact person” had been changed days after the directive. They also “demand” that Profil publishes the press release within 24 hours and in the next print edition.
“Tyrol tries to intimidate journalists through threats”, tweeted Christian Rainer, Profil’s editor-in-chief. The politicians backtracked, calling the statement a mere “request for a correction”.
Earlier in May, a “very detailed and comprehensive” report on the case fo the ski-resort in Ischgl was received by the public prosecutor, who said that the decision on whether or not to start an investigation into Tyrolean politicians’ negligence would not happen within this week.
He also said that in sum, 321 people who claim to have contracted the virus in Tyrolean ski resorts have bolstered the proceedings as victims.
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.”
Austrian opposition criticise Kurz’ appearance at lockdown-breaking event
On Wednesday (13 May), Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) visited a village in the far west of Austria and was followed by a crowd of villagers, many of whom failed to keep the mandatory one-meter distance between them. Holding a speech, Kurz asked them to stand further apart, but the images of him holding an event amidst the lockdown infuriated the opposition.
The liberal party NEOS announced to file a legal complaint for breaking lockdown measures on Wednesday, but reconsidered. “I will not confront dozens of private people with complaints just so that Kurz can put the blame on them,” tweeted Sepp Schellhorn, deputy chair of the party.
Instead, NEOS and social democrats will file a parliamentary inquiry into the organisation of the event.
Border controls and ramping up summer tourism
On 13 May, Kurz announced that the country will completely reopen its borders with Germany and Switzerland as of 15 June. The country 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.
Other controls will remain in place. Despite being originally set to phase out on 7 May, the country announced that it will keep its border controls with Italy and Slovenia in place until 31 May. Until then, a certificate confirming a negative COVID-19 test, which is no older than four days, will have to be presented at the border.
This comes after actions 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 advanced in the fight against the novel coronavirus with relatively low levels of infection.
One country under such consideration was Germany. However, after Austria’s conservative tourism minister Elisabeth Köstinger (ÖVP) had announced plans to reach a bilateral agreement with Germany to allow tourists to cross the border, Berlin voiced some concerns.
Germany’s Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (CSU) said that “as long as the virus does not go on vacation, we will also have to limit our travel plans.” Border controls with neighbouring countries, including with Austria, are set to be prolonged, his ministry added.
AUA facing insolvency
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, while 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.
‘Stopp-Corona’: Austria’s controversial COVID-19 tracking app
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 set off these concerning a few weeks ago when he floated the idea of making it mandatory. In response, Chancellor Kurz (ÖVP) was forced to deny the statement and promise it would remain voluntary.
Later, politicians in the country’s oppositions 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 Ministry of Health 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 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:
- New law to exclude people from events
- Survey shows Austrians against making corona-tracing apps mandatory
- Privacy activists on COVID-19 surveillance: Either ineffective or questionable
- Telecom operator sends citizens’ movement data to the government
In the latest round of easing, limitations on public life will be lifted on 1 May, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober (Greens) told a press conference on 28 April. People will once again be allowed to leave their homes without having to state a reason if stopped by the police. However, they will still have 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 will be allowed, up to 30 for funerals. Restaurants will reopen on 15 May and hotels two weeks later (29 May). In restaurants, four people per table are allowed without having to keep the 1-meter-distance. Public bathing places will also open on 29 May.
This news is the latest in government’s exit strategy, which was first rolled out on 6 April. On that day, 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.
Later in April (21 April), Chancellor Kurz announced that restaurants and schools would re-open on 15 May. While restaurants have to close at 11 pm and staff must wear protective masks, students who graduate this year will already be taking preparatory classes as of 4 May and regular school will gradually resume from 15 May.
More on Austria’s COVID-19 restrictions here:
- Government announces further lockdown easing
- Opposition parties criticise government for corona-crisis measures
- Austria announces new COVID-19 restrictions
- Curfew in crisis-ridden Tyrol prolonged
- New measures as cases pass the 1,000-threshold
- Additional measures to counter the coronavirus
In a televised address to honor 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.”
In the future, Kurz also intends to make it easier for companies to preserve and create jobs, while creating a more equitable society for the essential and frequently underpaid workers the country is currently relying on.
Corona-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 cannot pay rent will be protected from eviction, and their contracts cannot be cancelled. They will have until 31 December to pay back the rent.
Low income families will receive support from a fund of €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.
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- COVID-19: Austria takes precautionary measures for internet use, despite ‘buffer’ in capacities