Austria has been in lockdown for two weeks in an effort to stem the pandemic, with the country seeing 9,000 infections and 108 deaths.
But Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said further measures were necessary to staunch the outbreak and supermarkets would be distributing masks to customers on entry.
“I would like to say that a mask for everyone will be available from Wednesday, but in some branches it may take a day or two longer,” Kurz said in a televised press conference.
“From that time on it will be obligatory to wear them in supermarkets.”
Kurz cautioned that the new measure was no substitute for maintaining the recommended distance from other people in public and was intended as a supplementary safeguard.
While it offered the mask-wearer little protection against contracting the virus themselves, it would help prevent them passing it onto other people if they were unwittingly infected, he said.
“I am aware that masks for our culture are something unusual and that this will be a big adjustment,” he said, drawing a contrast with Asian countries where the practice is more common.
Asked about how many suitable masks were currently available, Kurz admitted that there was high international demand for them and that home-made masks would also be acceptable to wear.
Kurz warned Austrians that they were in the “calm before the storm” in terms of the fight against the virus.
Lockdown measures are currently scheduled to run until 13 April but Kurz warned the country was engaged in “a marathon” to beat the virus and that “we are still a long way off easing the (lockdown) measures”.
In other steps announced Monday, the government said it would pay the wages of those who are at particular risk of complications from COVID-19 but who cannot work from home, in order to make sure they do not go out to work.
The government also said that it would be carrying out testing on a sample of 2,000 inhabitants in order to form a picture of how widespread the virus was among the broader population.
Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said that “great progress” was being made on antibody tests to reveal who had already contracted the virus and would therefore theoretically have immunity from reinfection.
Such tests could hopefully be rolled out “in a foreseeable time frame,” Anschober said.