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AUSTRIA

Austrian scientists warn warm weather may not slow coronavirus spread

Experts have warned people not to get too excited about the start of spring in the fight against the corona pandemic, as it is not proven that warmer temperatures stop the spread of the virus. 

Austrian scientists warn warm weather may not slow coronavirus spread
People sit under a blooming Japanese Cherry tree at the Stadt Park in Vienna. (JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Virologist Norbert Nowotny from the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna has told APA that not much is known about the seasonality of SARS-CoV-2.

He does not believe that there will be fewer infections because of rising temperatures, though infections may reduce because people spend more time outside in summer. 

Nowotny said there were three routes of coronavirus transmission, the most important of which is direct infection from person to person over a short distance via droplets, which happens regardless of the seasons.

The virus can also be transmitted by aerosols (tiny, airborne droplets) and finally through contact with surfaces such as door handles.

Aerosol and transmission through contact with surfaces only take place indoors, and this is also where the majority of infections occur. 

Coronavirus seasonality ‘less pronounced’ than for influenza

Nowotny says until enough people have built up immunity to SARS-CoV-2, either through infection or through a vaccination, the pandemic will continue independently of the seasons.

The low number of cases last summer was due to the fact so little virus was circulating in the population, which is not the case now. 

The environmental medicine specialist Hans-Peter Hutter from MediUni Vienna, agrees and says the seasonal effect of SARS-CoV-2 is “significantly less pronounced” than for influenza.  

A man rides his bicycle through horse alley in Prater park on a sunny spring day in Vienna, (JOE KLAMAR/AFP)

However, the virologist Elisabeth Puchhammer-Stöckl, also from MedUni Vienna, says there is no reliable knowledge or  findings around the seasonality of the virus.

Simulation researcher Niki Popper from the Technical University of Vienna says he has seen a connection to the extent infections spread and warmer temperatures.  

Research recently published in the journal Pnas found there was a link between falling numbers of coronavirus infections and increased UV radiation, but that this had significantly lower effect than hygiene and distance rules.

Nowotny says wearing a mask is important, and if it is not possible to keep distance from other people, a FFP2 mask should also be worn outdoors, although he is not a “big fan” of an outdoor mask requirement.

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ECONOMY

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria’s winter season

Austria’s lucrative winter season has already been hit by pandemic restrictions for the past two years. But this year there is also record inflation, staff shortages and an energy crisis to deal with.

From inflation to Covid: What to expect from Austria's winter season

The winter season in Austria is a big driver of the country’s economy and has been hit hard by Covid-19 restrictions for the past two winters.

But this year the industry faces an even bigger crisis – a combination of rising inflation, concerns over energy supplies, staff shortages and the pandemic (because it’s not over yet).

We took a closer look to find out how these issues could impact the industry and what we could expect from this year’s winter season in Austria.

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Inflation

Winter sports is a big guzzler of energy to operate ski lifts, apres ski venues and snow making machines. 

This means the industry is in a vulnerable position as energy prices rise, with some resort operators already confirming they will have to pass on some costs to customers.

Johann Roth, Managing Director at Präbichl in Styria, said that energy costs at the resort have tripled and admitted he is concerned about the coming winter season.

Roth told the Kronen Zeitung: “Of course we will have to increase the ticket prices, and to an extent that has never been seen in recent years.”

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At Planai ski resort in Schladming, Styria, Director Georg Bliem said they aim to keep the day ticket price under €70, but has also set up an energy task force to find cost-saving measures for this year. 

Suggestions for Planai include narrower slopes, reduced snowmaking capabilities, shorter cable car operating times and even a delayed start to the season.

Electricity costs at Planaibahn (the resort’s ski lift and gondola operator) were already at €3 million before the current energy crisis, according to the Kronen Zeitung.

Then there are hospitality businesses and hotels at ski resorts that are also being hit by rising costs.

As a result, the Kurier reports that room prices in overnight accommodation could increase by a further 15 percent in winter, and many people will no longer be able to afford skiing holidays.

Heating may be an issue in winter as the energy crisis looms (Photo by Achudh Krishna on Unsplash)

Energy

Rising prices are just one element of the energy crisis as there are fears that Austria will not have enough gas for the coming winter season – mostly due to the war in Ukraine.

In March, Austria activated the early warning system – which is the first level of a three-step emergency plan – for the country’s gas supply. If it reaches step three (emergency level), energy control measures will be put in place across the country.

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How this would impact ski resorts is unknown, but at the emergency level, households, essential industries and infrastructure would be prioritised for energy.

So far, there is no indication that step two (alert level) will be activated and the European Aggregated Gas Storage Inventory recently confirmed that Austria’s gas storage capacity was 60 percent full

Austria’s goal is to reach 80 percent capacity by November 1st in order to have a safety reserve.

However, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler already appealed to businesses and households in July to start saving energy where possible.

Staff shortages

Ever since Austria (and Europe) started opening up after Covid-19 lockdowns, the hospitality and tourism industries have been struggling to find staff.

In fact, shortly before the start of the summer season in Austria, there were 30,000 open job vacancies in the tourism sector. And the Wiener Zeitung recently reported on how restaurants in Vienna are struggling to keep up with customer demand due to staff shortages. 

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The issue is even being discussed in parliament and it has already been made easier for seasonal workers in Austria to access residency through changes to the Red-White-Red card. 

Now, there are expectations of similar staff shortages for the winter season, which could cause further stress for ski resort operators.

Covid-19

Back in July, it was reported that the federal government was working on a Covid-19 contingency plan to get the country through another autumn and winter.

It envisages four scenarios – numbered from the best to the worst case. In the best case scenario, Austrians can live free of any pandemic rules. In the second best scenario, the situation will remain as it is (find out more about Austria’s latest Covid-19 rules here).

In scenario three, if new variants lead to more severe illness, the mask requirement will be expanded and more testing will be carried out.

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There could even be night-time curfews, entry tests and restrictions on private meetings. In addition, major events could be stopped from taking place and nightclubs closed.

Scenario four, the worst case scenario, would mean vaccination no longer offered protection and hospitals became overwhelmed, leading to severe restrictions on people’s social lives.

From what we’ve seen over the past two winters, scenarios three and four would likely impact winter sports operations. But to what degree would depend on the severity of the situation.

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