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UPDATE: Is Austria relaxing Covid measures too quickly as Delta variant spreads?

Austria is relaxing most coronavirus restrictions on July 1st despite heightened concern surrounding the Delta variant. But what do the experts say?

UPDATE: Is Austria relaxing Covid measures too quickly as Delta variant spreads?
Austria has further relaxed coronavirus measures as of July 1st. Photo: John MacDougall/AFP

Since midnight, many of the remaining Covid-19 restrictions in Austria have been eased, but some politicians and experts are asking if it’s too soon – especially as the Delta variant continues to spread.

Although 3-G (tested, vaccinated or recovered) still applies for hospitality and many cultural and leisure activities, late night venues can open again and it is no longer mandatory to wear an FFP2 mask in retail. 

FFP2 masks still have to be worn in hospitals and aged-care homes in Vienna, but in essential retail spaces like supermarkets and pharmacies and on public transport, only a cloth mask is required.

At the same time, cases of the Delta variant, which is more transmissible than the Alpha variant and can potentially bypass some immunity, is increasing in Austria.

This has led to concerns about the relaxation of restrictions, with Vienna taking a different path to the rest of the country by banning the use of self-tests and introducing a mandate that children from the age of 6 need proof of a negative test or vaccination.

For the rest of the country, the 3-G rule for children is being raised from the age of 10 to 12.

IN DETAIL: How Austria will relax coronavirus measures from Thursday

What do the experts say?

The Local spoke to Fabian Valka, Researcher Mathematical Modeling and Machine Learning at vektorraum, about the 1st July Lockerungen (relaxation of measures) and the Delta variant.

Fabian said: “The proportion of Delta variant cases among all cases in Austria is rapidly growing, like in many other countries. 

“The current data also suggests that the Delta variant cases are probably already growing exponentially in Austria. 

“Any lifting of current interventions, like mask mandates, has the potential to further accelerate that growth.”

Fabian, a co-author of the Covid-19 Model for Austria for Imperial College London, confirmed that Delta is already the dominant variant accounting for 39 per cent of sequenced or PCR-tested cases in Austria, according to the latest data from AGES.

He also shared the news in a Tweet:

Fabian said: “The proportion among current infections is probably even higher since cases always lag behind infections and the clear growth of Delta.”

When asked about the potential for another outbreak of Covid-19 in the autumn and winter, he said: “We can already see a fast rise of cases in the UK, even though full lifting was delayed. 

“Austria right now is in a position of relatively low case numbers, still declining cases and a smaller proportion of Delta. 

“But the proportion of Delta is also growing rapidly and we’ve got far fewer people fully vaccinated than in the UK.

“Personally, I think that we’ll probably need to reintroduce many currently lifted interventions in Austria to stop the next wave of cases, hospitalisations, and deaths.”

So, what advice does Fabian have for people as restrictions are rolled back across the country?

He told The Local: “The best protection is still to get fully vaccinated.”

“Personally, I’ll still keep wearing an FFP2 or FFP3 mask, even when not mandatory.”

What is the Austrian media saying?

Today, Der Standard is asking if the same mistakes as last summer are being repeated, with a relaxation of measures followed by an autumn and winter of lockdowns and high case numbers.

The Wiener Zeitung is reporting on Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) saying further restrictions are not necessary right now, and Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens) predicting a “safe autumn”.

ORF is reporting on the opening of clubs and discos with details about the new rules, including that staff and guests don’t have to wear masks.

The Kronen Zeitung is reporting on criticism by Tourism Minister Elisabeth Köstinger (ÖVP) about the decision in Vienna to tighten some restrictions.

READ MORE: Entry, masks and nightclubs: What are the rules in some of Austria’s favourite holiday destinations?

What is the advice from the WHO?

The WHO has said that Delta is quickly becoming the dominant strain of Covid-19 around the world.

During a news briefing last week, Dr. Mariangela Simao, WHO Assistant Director-General for Access to Medicines and Health Products, said vaccination alone won’t stop the spread of the variant and urged people to remain cautious.

She said: “People cannot feel safe just because they had the two doses. They still need to protect themselves.”

Dr. Simao then advised people to continue with protective measures, such as mask wearing, social distancing, avoiding crowds and practicing good hand hygiene.

What are people saying about the relaxation of restrictions in Austria?

On Twitter, people are sharing their concerns about the upcoming relaxation in light of the Delta variant.

READ MORE: TRAVEL: How does the new EU Covid certificate work and how do I get one?

What is happening in other countries?

Following the recent recommendation from the WHO, the Wall Street Journal reported that half of the people infected with the Delta variant in Israel had already been fully vaccinated with the Pfizer jab. 

Israel has now reintroduced an indoor mask requirement. 

In the USA, Los Angeles County has also reintroduced a mask recommendation for residents as cases of the Delta variant increase in the state – including for fully vaccinated people.

The UK has recorded 117 deaths from the Delta variant, including 50 people who had already been fully vaccinated and were aged over 50.

face covering is required in the UK in places like supermarkets, public transport, hairdressers and public areas in hotels. 

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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.”

READ MORE: Cost of living: Why are restaurants getting more expensive in Austria?

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.

FOR MEMBERS: When will Austria make the €500 anti-inflation payment and how do I get it?

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.

READ MORE: REVEALED: The Covid-19 measures for the start of the Austrian school year

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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