‘Five months with no guests’: Can Vienna’s famous cafes survive coronavirus pandemic?

Vienna's café culture is world famous but the pandemic has forced coffee houses to close since November. The cafes and restaurants that survived World War Two now fear for their future and say time is running out.

'Five months with no guests': Can Vienna's famous cafes survive coronavirus pandemic?
An artificial skeleton dressed as a waiter sits with a poster reading 'Bored to death' and grave candles at the entrance of the Cafe Humel in Vienna. Photo: ALEX HALADA / AFP

Around 150 cafes and restaurants across Vienna opened for one hour on Monday, but not to serve any guests.

Instead, owners lit candles and posted signs reading “Funf vor Zwolf” – or Five to Twelve – to stress that time is running out given the perilous state many coffee houses and restaurants find themselves in due to the lockdown as a result of the corona pandemic. 

Many businesses posted videos to a Facebook page, explaining their plight. Cafe Edison had a violinist in the window to play music to passers by, while Mary’s Coffee Club in Vienna Neustadt placed a bagpiper outside to play in the snow.  

Andre Stolzlechner, of Restaurant Hollerei, said: “It is a crying shame. Five months with no guests, and there is no end in sight.”

Austria has been in lockdown since the beginning of November, when there was a dramatic rise in coronavirus infections.

Since then restaurants and bars have only been allowed to offer takeout and delivery services with dining in not permitted. The forced closures were recently extended until at least the end of February.

Even Vienna’s famous coffee houses, many of which have been in business for over a century, surviving World War II, are now under threat from the lockdown.

Der Standard recently reported that the owner of the famous Landtmann Cafe, which dates back to 1873, features an original 1920s interior, and was the former haunt of Marlene Dietrich and Sigmund Freud, is being sued for rent arrears.

Company boss Bernt Querfeld, whose family runs 12 restaurants in Vienna, told the newspaper, “At Café Landtmann, we have always paid our rent on time for 44 years – and now this.”

He added “The landlords' argument that the pandemic does not limit the usability of cafés is almost a form of corona denial. This entire approach is very strange.”

The case will now be settled in court. 

Querfield sees the landlord's actions as a direct attack on Viennese coffee house culture.

Vienna’s cafe culture is world famous. The first coffee houses in the city opened in 1683 and traditional coffee houses in the city have such a strong cultural heritage that they were recognised by Unesco in 2011.

Featuring old fashioned furnishings, elegantly dressed waiters, the traditional Viennese coffee house is supposed to be like a second living room, giving you the chance to sit as long as you like reading a newspaper while sipping a coffee. They have always been seen as a place where Viennese people would escape to relax. 

Now, decades-old family run institutions such as Cafe Hummel (established 1935) in the 8th district of Vienna advertise takeaway services featuring waiters dressed in black and white about to deliver by bike.

Cafe Hummel also took part in the protest, posting a photograph of a skeleton holding a sign saying “bored to death”, and commenting “Mr. Ober Karl, our skeleton, stands for the waiters affected by the crisis. We continue to persevere with our Viennese hospitality for our guests”. 

Christina Hummel, 44, and the third generation of her family to run the cafe, which is in Vienna's Josefstadt district.

Many in the sector feel “fobbed off from week to week” by changes to government policy and are finding it impossible to plan, she says.

As to whether she would consider opening in defiance of the law, Hummel says that's out of the question.

“First and foremost I'm a mother of a six-year-old son and I'm responsible for 30 families in my business — I wouldn't do anything which would get me into trouble or mean I would have to pay a fine,” she says.

“I'm no Covid denier or conspiracy theorist, we know it's a drastic situation at the moment in the hospitals.”

She rejects the label of “rage restaurateurs” that parts of the press have given protesting cafe and restaurant owners, describing herself instead as someone who is “passionate about hospitality”.

In the long term, Hummel is optimistic, however.

“Viennese cafe culture has already been through crises. This Viennese way of life will never be defeated; as the saying goes: 'A real Viennese never gives up'.”

Peter Dobcak, the head of the gastronomy group at the Chamber of Commerce told businesses of all sizes are affected by the lockdown.

He said he still fears 20 – 30 percent of Viennese restaurants will not survive the coronavirus lockdowns, as he has repeatedly warned throughout the pandemic.

Almost half a million people are on short time work in Austria, Der Standard reported this week, adding the government has put aside €300 million for the hospitality industry, which includes catering and accommodation.

Applications can now be submitted to the Austrian Hotel and Tourism Bank (ÖHT), said Minister Elisabeth Köstinger on Tuesday.

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Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.