Austria Opens Shops as WHO Warns Against Moving Too Fast

Written by: Sophia Halverson

As the rest of Europe has been struggling with COVID-19, Austria has mostly flattened the curve and is ready to make decisive steps toward returning to normal. While most countries in Europe were still struggling with whether or not to institute full shutdowns, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called for a decisive lockdown on March 14, along with ease of access to testing for those who need it.  On March 10, Austria was again one of the first European countries to close schools and universities, ban public gatherings, and restrict travel between nearby countries. Unlike other countries, Austrians were allowed outside for exercise, along with travel to and from essential businesses like grocery stores and pharmacies. As of April 6th, Austria had 12,058 coronavirus cases and 220 deaths, less than neighboring Switzerland and Italy.  Over 55,000 people out of the country’s nine million had been tested. Although hospital cases have stabilized, Kurz warned that they could reach capacity again in as few as two weeks if strict guidelines were not followed. 

By April 6,  the Austrian government had already allowed for the opening of small shops and garden centers when the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe warned countries not to move too fast. More businesses are set to open on May 1, including hair salons, and some churches will start holding in-person services by May 15. Many restaurants will also open in mid-May, but public gatherings won’t be held until at least early July. The Formula One company is still planning to start its new season in Austria on July 5th; the British Grand Prix is still tentatively on track to open, but the French Prix has been cancelled. Austria is expected to host the first race and the racing season may need to be extended into 2021, as North America and other parts of Europe will likely lift restrictions later in the year. Early races will take place without fans, but the company hopes that they can be incorporated into the races later in the season. 

Austrian doctors and scientists are in agreement about the continued need for mass testing and stringent monitoring of infection rates, especially in two and four week intervals. Restrictions can only be eased if the rules are strictly followed and adequate social distancing measures and mask wearing are adhered to. 

Other European governments in Spain, Belgium, France, and Germany have begun to form exploratory committees to discuss lifting restrictions, but Austria is the first to take decisive steps to open up. Many governments have been hesitant to take large steps because of the amount of uncertainty surrounding the virus and the adequacy of social distancing measures. However, as Austria’s rate of infection has declined, shopkeepers are looking forward to getting back to work and getting the economy back on track. 

Even when the rest of the country’s shops, hotels, and restaurants open up, things will not be quite back to normal yet; new rules are in place making the wearing of Personal Protective Equipment mandatory in many public spaces. The reopening efforts are a work in progress and can be altered as necessary, especially if new outbreaks happen. 

Other countries have been eager to open stores and restaurants even as the rate of infection has climbed. Many experts have noticed how disastrous it could be if countries open too early, leading to a resurgence of infections and an oversaturation of hospital beds. 

Depending on how the reopening effort goes, Austria could be an example for other parts of the world as they begin to loosen their lockdown restrictions. Austria’s success in responding to the virus highlights the necessity of mass testing and the wearing of masks in public spaces with strict and decisive measures. Austria lost no time in dealing with the virus, bypassing the vacillation in many other countries to shut down the economy-and now they appear on the way to opening up faster than many of their neighbors. Only with mass testing and other stringent security standards, which other countries seem incapable of or wary of implementing, will it be safe for the economy to open again.