VIENNA (Reuters) – Austria is preparing for a “resurrection” the day after Easter by reopening some shops in an initial loosening of its coronavirus lockdown, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said on Monday, the first European country to outline such plans.
The Alpine and largely Catholic nation was broadly shut down three weeks ago, with schools, bars, restaurants, theatres, non-essential shops and other gathering places closed. The public has been told to stay at home and work from there if possible.
The lockdown has helped reduce the daily increase in infections to 1.6%, Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said. The number of people in hospital has stabilised. There have been 12,206 cases and 220 deaths so far in Austria.
“We reacted faster and more restrictively than in other countries and could therefore avoid the worst. But this fast and restrictive reaction now also gives us the possibility to come out of this crisis more quickly,” Kurz, a conservative who governs with the left-wing Greens, told a news conference.
Denmark, the Czech Republic and Italy could outline similar plans soon, but Austria is the first European country to give dates and details. Kurz cautioned, however, that his plan was tentative and depended on developments over the next seven days.
“Easter week will be a decisive one for us. It is one that will determine whether the resurrection after Easter that we all hope for can happen as such,” he said.
Kurz urged the public to stick to overall lockdown measures that which are being extended until the end of April.
His plan is for non-essential shops of 400 square metres (4,300 square feet) or less and DIY shops to reopen on April 14, the day after Easter Monday. They would be followed by all shops, shopping malls and hairdressers on May 1.
However, only one shopper per 20 square metres of shop space will be allowed.
For their part, restaurants and hotels will have to wait until mid-May at the earliest and no public events will be held until at least late June, Kurz said.
MASKS, NOT HERD IMMUNITY
Austria has since Monday required shoppers to wear face masks at supermarkets and drugstores of more than 400 square metres. The government said it would extend that requirement to public transport and shops that are reopening.
While the public has been generally supportive of the mask requirement, wrinkles have appeared, with some supermarkets running out of masks or charging shoppers for them. Kurz said the government would check that masks are not sold for profit. A scarf or shawl can also be worn instead.
The chancellor also gave a preview of a study on whether a representative sample of 2,000 people had been exposed to the coronavirus.
“What we can say is that it is in the thousandths of a percent and an infection rate in Austria…will be around 1%,” Kurz said. “Any idea of herd immunity has been clearly disproved at the latest by this spot check.”
Worldwide, over 1.25 million people have been reported infected by the viral pandemic and 68,484 have died, according to the latest Reuters tally, with Italy, Austria’s southern neighbour, suffering the highest national toll.
(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)