Austria’s government had words of encouragement and caution for the population, as the country set out to ease its lockdown step by step. “We are on course,” said Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) at a press conference on April 14, after praising people for following the restrictions also over the Easter weekend.
The next phase, pointed out Minister of Health Rudolf Anschober (Greens) may “pose even greater challenges.” With the phased reopening of stores and public life, social distancing and continued vigilance, including wearing masks in public transport as well as stores are essential and even more difficult to maintain.
As of today, Tuesday, April 14, hardware stores, garden centers and shops smaller than 400 square meters may reopen in Austria, albeit with restrictions how many people may enter at any one time. “As much freedom as possible, as much restrictions as necessary,” is the strategy according to Chancellor Kurz.
Meanwhile, a wider world mostly still in lockdown is watching in fascination. One of the first countries – along with Denmark and Czechia – to attempt an easing of the lockdown, all eyes are on Austria.
A media review.
In Austria, smaller shops or large garden centers and household goods stores have been reopened as of Tuesday. From May 1, other establishments, such as a hairdresser, are to follow. If everything goes according to plan, from mid-May, restaurants and hotels should start operating again. However, larger gatherings will remain prohibited. “Avoid social contacts, maintain the prescribed distance in public places,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said.
Easter week will be crucial to understand if Sebastian Kurz can keep his promise. While Austria was among the first countries to close its borders a month ago and to adopt severe anti-coronavirus containment measures, the turning point came yesterday [April 5]. Austria will be the first European country to ease the lockdown. Denmark and the Czech Republic are also considering such a step, but the first emergency exit plan is that of the Austrians.
“So far, we have weathered the crisis better than other countries. Our goal now is to get out of the crisis faster than the others,” said the Conservative head of government at a press conference. Even if he made it clear that Austria could “put the foot on the brake” at any time in the event of a resumption of the spread of coronavirus, he displayed undeniable satisfaction, alongside his Green coalition partner. “We reacted faster and more drastically, we were able to avoid the worst,” said the 33-year-old chancellor explaining this success.
EU uncoordinated about the end of confinement: Austria and Denmark move ahead
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has created an advisory team of epidemiologists and virologists to advise her on Covid-19. But the coordinated Brussels strategy remains to come, and some Member States are beginning to act unilaterally. Austria – which decreed a lockdown on March 16 – and Denmark – which began March 11 – will be the first two EU countries to begin lifting the restrictive measures. They will do so progressively from next week. [Austria closed the borders to Italy on March 11, ed.]
After the “hammer” the delicate dance to normality begins
Sebastian Kurz wrote a letter to the Austrians over Easter. In it, he asked them to refrain one last time from family celebrations during the holidays and to strictly observe the new rules of conduct such as keeping a distance and wearing a mask, even after the holidays. “Even if we may now feel a first sense of relief and great gratitude, it would be wrong to believe that the virus has been defeated,” he warned in the letter, which was published by many daily newspapers on Sunday “because it [the virus] will accompany us for months to come.”
Austria was one of the first European countries to follow neighbouring Italy in imposing strict lockdown measures about a month ago, and the government says it has managed to flatten the curve of new infections. It has so far reported about 14,000 cases and 368 deaths. Last week, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz unveiled plans to lift restrictions gradually. In an open letter to the country on Saturday, he said he wanted to “come out of this crisis as quickly as possible and fight for every job in Austria.”
These countries are reopening — here’s how they’re doing it
According to [Dr. Peter] Drobac [global health expert at the Oxford Saïd Business School], the countries preparing to ease restrictions had something in common: they were among the first in Europe to implement lockdowns or severe social distancing measures and had rapidly scaled up coronavirus testing.
“They had these things in place and as a result they are already past the peak of infections there,” he said. The numbers of coronavirus-related deaths in these nations are in the tens or hundreds, rather than the thousands, he said, and “they are in a much better place because of proactive action.” What they’ve announced about how they plan gradually to relax restrictions “looks reasonable and it looks smart,” Drobac said.