Due to a high number of COVID cases infected with the South African strain, the federal government has isolated the Austrian state of Tyrol. News of the spread even reached neighboring Germany, which has imposed tough controls along its southern borders.
In recent weeks, Tyrol has become the hotspot for the South African virus mutation. Scientific tracking has traced the spread to a man in the regional capital of Schwaz, who tested positive for the virus on Dec. 23. He had visited a friend just returned from a business trip to South Africa, and flown back with a Southern German colleague, who tested positive upon arrival. Currently, Tyrolean authorities report 343 cases of the South African virus mutation. There are 192 more suspected cases.
The high case numbers in Tyrol has alarmed the federal government. After much deliberation, Sebastian Kurz’s cabinet released a travel warning for the region on Feb. 8 and ordered all returning individuals to get tested. Citing last’s year’s experience in Ischgl, Governor Günther Platter proposed his own plan to curb the spread, with mass testing in districts with high seven-day incidences, a testing requirement for ski lifts, and a plea to the public to limit interactions. While Platter believes the “general mobility restrictions” are correct, the travel warning is “wrong,” he said in a statement.
The governor’s dissatisfaction turned to fury when Germany declared Tyrol a “mutation zone,” announcing a de facto entry ban to the region. Responding to pressure from Bavarian Minister President Markus Söder, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer imposed border controls to Austria and Czechia, effective Feb. 14, tentatively lasting until March 6. Entry is only permitted to German citizens and individuals with German residence permits with a negative COVID test. At the time, the German government promised that there would be exceptions to this ruling, and they would “provide information about this as soon as possible.”
The Austrian government criticized the German move. “The de facto closure of the German corner for Austrians is absolutely unacceptable,” Interior Minister Karl Nehammer told APA. “This measure by Bavaria is half-baked and only causes chaos.” Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg warned of “excessive steps” that do more harm than good. German officials have since reversed the order, allowing apprentices, commuters, and students to travel across the German corner, essential connections through Germany between Salzburg and Tyrol.
However, the border to Bavaria remains shut, and German officials could not have been less clear about the exceptions. After a seemingly endless back-and-forth between Vienna and Berlin, Seehofer and Söder announced that certain Tyrolean commuters who work in “systemically relevant” sectors may enter Germany. These must pre-register, provide an employer letter, and show a negative corona test no older than 48 hours. Starting Feb. 17, an official certificate from German authorities will be required as well, according to the German Federal Police Directorate in Munich.
So far, officials in Bavaria and Sachsen have failed to define which sectors these exceptions apply to. Söder has indicated that medical personnel could be considered. The confusion has disrupted operations in Bavarian manufacturing, which employ 9,600 Austrians.
The Austrian Foreign Ministry said the limitation to “systemically relevant” professionals is “wirtschaftsfeindlich” (“anti-business”). It further pointed out that the “extremely strict” measures are “disproportionate,” and the border controls are in “clear contradiction to the ‘lessons learned’ last spring.”
“We are all urged not to repeat the mistakes made in spring 2020 and to further hinder the already severely weakened economy,” said the ministry. “After all, we jointly bear responsibility for one of the main economic arteries on our continent.”
The German entry ban has also strained the free movement of goods within the European Union’s single market. This could potentially disrupt national supply chains, said Alexander Klacska, the chairman of the Federal Transport and Traffic Department in the Austrian Economic Chamber (WKO). Truck drivers must now present a negative COVID test upon entering Germany. There are no testing stations near the borders, and since most drivers do not come directly from their home countries, this complicates transit. German car manufacturers, who don’t keep supply inventories, have voiced particular concern over a possible production freeze. Companies order items from supplier companies in Austria on a needs basis. Previously, the International Road Transport Union (IRU) warned that EU governments should “respect their commitment to keep[ing] borders open” to prevent such “chaos” in the transport of goods.
European officials too have raised an eyebrow at Germany. In an emailed statement, EU’s Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders emphasized that member states had agreed on a common approach to managing the COVID spread.
“This approach is and remains the right one because it strikes the balance between preventing the virus from spreading further and safeguarding free movement in the EU,” said Reynders. “Unilateral decisions to close borders risk causing fragmentation and disruptions to essential supply chains and jeopardize the EU’s internal market.”
But Seehofer rebuffed the EU’s criticism, calling it “nonsense” and defended Germany’s policy. “We are fighting the mutated virus on the border with the Czech Republic and Austria,” the politician told the German tabloid Bild. “The EU Commission should support us and not put spokes in our wheels with cheap advice.”
The German State Secretary Stephan Mayer renewed the country’s promise to Europe. “It’s not nice, none of us want this,” he said. “We are all for a free and open Europe.” The border controls, however, are “unfortunately necessary.”