The date is Friday, April 2. The location, the Donaukanal. Where on Wednesday, the quays had been thick with people, today the canal is almost deserted. Since April 1, Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland have once again entered a strict lockdown to cope with dangerously high COVID-19 case numbers, a suspension of most commercial and cultural activity expected to last until April 18.
At the same time, the vaccination program is picking up pace, with 1,813,867 jabs given out as of March 7, representing 6.54% fully immunized and another 16.84% with a first dose. With the number of doses ordered, Austria is expected to be able to fully immunize 50.92% of the population – and, as Chancellor Sebastian Kurz claimed in his Easter message, everyone willing to be immunized can get their first jab by mid-July at the latest.
In Vienna, the lockdown includes a new requirement to wear FFP2 masks in designated popular meeting places like the Donaukanal, Schwedenplatz, Stephansplatz, Karlsplatz and the adjacent Resselpark, Maria-Theresien-Platz, and the entire MuseumsQuartier. The locations are not set in stone: Vienna’s Mayor Michael Ludwig emphasized that the mask requirement could be extended for gatherings moved to other parts of the city.
Between Cooperation and Irritation
On Good Friday, those out walking reported being largely sympathetic with the new measures, regardless of whether or not they were holding to the rules themselves. Strolling along the Donaukanal, Leo (27) and Denise (26) took the situation in stride: “After a year of the pandemic, mask-wearing doesn’t put us off anymore,” Denise said, laughing. For Leo, wearing his mask is “a small price” in return for some water and greenery.
A few steps down the quay, Omar and Tarek were lounging on a bench in the spring sun. For Tarek, the older of the two, the outdoor mask requirement was “sensible, but unbearable.”
“We live just up there,” 20-something Omar added, pointing to a building along the canal. “This is the only place I can go to get some air.” While they looked relaxed, they expected police checks at any moment: “Always ready,” Omar smirked and gestured towards the masks dangling from each of their wrists. “I thought you were an undercover cop!” he confided.
Indeed, the police increased controls in heavily frequented squares and parks over the Easter weekend. And by Monday, Director of Public Safety Franz Ruf was able to give a positive summary of the first days of lockdown: 70% of people wore masks where it was mandatory, and only very few refused to comply after officers had made them aware of the new measure.
A Symbolic Solution
Back at the Donaukanal, a police car was slowly patrolling the quays, stopping from time to time to reprimand one of the few cyclists or passers-by, the megaphone echoing along the empty promenade. Monika (65), who walks her dog here every day, thought the new requirement largely symbolic, “The government isn’t getting through to people anymore,” she said. Vienna’s City Councillor for Health Peter Hacker (SPÖ) agreed: The government needed “a signalling effect,” he said on “Wien heute” Mar. 31 to remind people of the need for social distancing.
With the arrival of spring, many found themselves thinking back to last summer, when meeting outdoors was an opportunity to regain some longed-for social life. For now, at least the newer virus mutations are requiring sustained vigilance. Variant B.1.1.7 – currently responsible for the majority of infections in Austria – has in particular increased the risk of infections outdoors, as Thomas Czypionka from the Institute of Advanced Studies told the Austrian daily Der Standard.
That same Friday evening, the inner-city was empty: The measures seemed to have had the desired effect. On Karlsplatz and Maria-Theresien-Platz, a few people were scattered on park benches and the occasional cyclist circled the square. At the near-by Stadtpark and Burggarten, too, few were about: People had not, as feared, simply retreated to other places.
Easter weekend came and went in the quiet of an empty city; as vaccination rates gradually picked up across the city, public trust was on the whole still intact.