Following the announcement of the latest lockdown to come into effect on April 1st in the states of Vienna, Lower Austria and Burgenland, the WKÖ (Austrian Economic Chambers and the ÖGB (Austrian Trade Union Federation) have issued a joint statement condemning the stricter coronavirus measures for Eastern Austria.
Both organizations described the government plans as “not feasible,” criticizing the plan to introduce FFP2 masks in all workplaces as well as the upcoming mandatory entry tests for retail customers. While the public reaction to the “Eastern lockdown” was mixed as in previous months, this was the first time that either the WKÖ or ÖGB have criticized any pandemic measures.
“No one doubts the effectiveness of the FFP2 masks. At the same time, it is imperative to take the practicalities of different occupational groups into account when making these kinds of decisions,” said ÖGB President Wolfgang Katzian and WKÖ President Harald Mahrer.
According to Katzian, those working longer hours need mask breaks, and professions where the wearing of an FFP2 mask would lead to bodily strain should instead get tested more frequently.
Another point of contention were the COVID tests to enter retail establishments, which will be mandatory. “This initiative was set up to be the first step towards a loosening of measures, but is now being used for the opposite purpose, creating additional barriers between businesses and their customers,” the head of the WKÖ explained.
Both Katzian and Mahrer have expressed their bewilderment at being excluded from the negotiations and added that they expect to talk with the government before the measures are set in motion. Both the Wirtschaftskammer and Gewerkschaftsbund are Sozialpartner, powerful special interest groups that represent most of Austrian business and labor, respectively, and are accustomed to being consulted on government policy.
Viennese Industrial representatives have also denounced the government’s actions, particularly the extension of mask regulations to all indoor spaces: “These directives will lead to a total halt in production and are just not realistic,” said Stefan Ehrlich-Adàm, chairman of the Industry Division of the Viennese Chamber of Commerce.
Sustained pressure from the WKÖ, ÖGB and business owners did succeed in reversing at the least some of the measures, including the extension of mask regulations, according to the Ministry of Health Wednesday, March 31. Further negotiations with the two agencies are in the works.
Likewise, the Bundesrat (the Upper House of Austrian Parliament) blocked mandatory entry tests for retail stores despite the urging of Health Minister Anschober, thereby delaying the measure by eight weeks.
With ICUs filling up and the specter of triage looming, many experts are still adamant that the coming lockdown is a regrettable necessity, and, if anything, does not go far enough. Nevertheless, the everyday realities of the workplace must be kept in mind when drafting policy, as the unusual cooperation between the WKÖ and ÖGB demonstrates.