Austrians enjoy last day before COVID-19 lockdown
Vienna – Austrians were enjoying a last day out in coffeehouses and at Christmas markets Sunday before the government imposes a nationwide lockdown to combat a growing fourth wave of coronavirus infections.
The measures, which take effect Monday and are expected to last for a maximum of 20 days but will be reevaluated after 10, require people to stay home apart from basic reasons like getting groceries, going to the doctor and exercising.
Restaurants and most shops will close, and larger events will be canceled. Schools and nurseries will remain open, but parents are encouraged to keep their children at home.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg also announced Friday that Austria will introduce a vaccine mandate as of Feb. 1. The details of how the mandate will work aren’t yet clear.
In an interview published Sunday in the newspaper Kurier, Schallenberg said it’s “sad” the government had to resort to a mandate in order to ensure that enough people get vaccinated.
Just under 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million population are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.
Of the impending lockdown, Schallenberg said he and other officials had hoped this summer that such restrictions would no longer be necessary, and that it was a tough decision to impose a new lockdown also on vaccinated people.
“That people’s freedoms need to be restricted again is, believe me, also difficult for me to bear,” he said.
The new measures, especially the vaccine mandate, have been met with fierce opposition among some in the country. A Saturday protest in the capital city of Vienna drew 40,000 people, according to police, including members of far-right parties and groups.
Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said Sunday that the anti-coronavirus protest scene is radicalizing.
An “extremely diverse group of people” took part in the protests, Nehammer said, according to the Austrian Press Agency. They included “concerned citizens but also right-wing extremists and known neo-Nazis, he said.
On Saturday, Austria reported 15,297 new infections, after a week in which daily cases topped 10,000. Hospitals, especially those in the hardest hit regions of Salzburg and Upper Austria, are overwhelmed as the number of coronavirus patients rises in intensive care units.