Austria plans to lift coronavirus containment measures and reopen the economy on May 19.
“We’re nearing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) said, announcing Austria’s plan to come out of the lockdown. The government had promised a concrete plan for reopening the country, which it presented on April 23. Thanks to the faster vaccination rate (currently, around 50,000 vaccine shots a day), said Kurz, a return to normality is not too far off. The chancellor did however also warn that there will be “very cautious opening steps” with “clear safety concepts.”
The biggest updates are the following:
- Schools will resume full in-person instruction on May 17.
- Restaurants, bars, hotels, spas, gyms and cultural institutions can reopen on May 19.
- Cultural and sports events will also be allowed again, starting on May 19.
For schools, regular testing of students and staff will continue. For restaurants, bars, hotels, culture and event, the much debated “green pass” will become an entry requirement.
The “green pass” will show whether one:
- tested negative,
- was vaccinated,
- or has recovered from a recent infection.
The “green pass” will be available digitally and also as a piece of paper, it is planned to be introduce in mid-May. The concept is inspired by Israel, which vaccinated its population in record time and used its own “green pass” system to return to normality.
The measures in place for these first opening steps will be:
- In all areas, wearing FFP2 masks and registration is mandatory (contact details must be provided).
- All proprietors must draw up a prevention concept and appoint a COVID-19 officer. Closing time is 22:00.
- Four people (plus children) are allowed at a table in indoor dining areas, and a maximum of ten people are allowed in outdoor dining areas.
- Consumption is permitted only while seated; buffets are allowed.
- Catering employees must wear an FFP2 mask; if they are tested, a mouth-nose protection is sufficient.
- In cultural and event areas, two meters distance must be maintained when patrons are outside an assigned seating area. There must be at least one unoccupied seat between groups of visitors.
- Events may be held outdoors with a maximum of 3,000 people and indoors with a maximum of 1,500 people. Venues with fixed seating may be filled to no more than half capacity.
- Events (e.g. conferences) with 11 or more people must be registered, and events with 51 or more people require a permit from the health authority (introduced in mid-May.
- When it comes to sports, 20 square meters of space per person must be available indoors (e.g. fitness studios and spas). While practicing sports, no mask is required.
Freedom for Those Who Are Vaccinated
Those who have received their first vaccination shot will be allowed to go to bars, theaters and the like three weeks (21 days) after their vaccination appointment without having to show a negative coronavirus test. The government expects that up to three million residents of Austria will fall into this category on May 19.
All other people will still have to conduct tests. However, these can also be done at home – in contrast to the wishes of Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens). According to reports, the governors of federal states in particular were pushing for self-tests at home. A complete opening of all sectors is scheduled for July 1, weddings and other bigger events will then also again be allowed. Mandatory testing will presumably no longer be necessary in the summer.
Raise the Curtains!
“This is something you can plan,” said Minister of Culture and Vice Chancellor Werner Kogler (Greens), hoping for “a lot of creativity and joy for the new approaches.” Elisabeth Köstinger, Minister for Agriculture and Tourism (ÖVP), was also pleased that restaurants, the tourism sector and cultural institutions will be allowed to re-open: “On May 19, it’s curtains up again!” The government wants to a make a “beautiful summer” possible, she said.
The effects of the opening steps will be closely monitored for the first few weeks. If the trend is favorable, more easing steps could come in June. Night clubs and bars being open at the usual late-night hours will probably have to wait longer. For students, in-person instruction will resume on all levels on May 17. Currently, only elementary school students have five days of instruction at school, everyone else is taught in shifts.
Together yet divided
The plan is for these opening steps to happen at the same all across Austria. However, individual federal states will still have the option to deviate from this schedule.
Vienna’s mayor Michael Ludwig (SPÖ), for example, is planning a gradual opening – “careful, intelligent and sustainable.” Therefore, some opening steps may be delayed in Vienna, depending on the situation by then.
In Tyrol, a new variant that is currently spreading might pose another problem for the federal state. The new mutation seems to combine the infectiousness of B1.1.7 (the so-called British variant), which is thought to be more infections, and E484K (the so-called South African variant), which can partly surpass prior immunity to the original strain and vaccines. At the moment, 1,800 people in the federal state are knowingly infected by this mutation. Yet the situation on Tyrol’s intensive care wards is stable despite the mutation, according to the local crisis team.