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COVID-19

Austria’s essential shops to close at 7pm during lockdown

During the second half of Austria's 20-day lockdown, essential businesses will close early at 7pm, the government confirmed on Monday.

Woman in mask in supermarket
The move is intended to boost safety for retail workers heading home on emptier than usual streets and transport. Photo: Ina Fassbender/AFP

The change to retail opening hours was the only significant change to the lockdown rules, apart from the shortening in the length of validity of vaccine certificates (from 360 to 270 days after the second dose) which had already been publicised and is effective from December 6th.

The reduced opening hours apply only to those businesses that are already allowed to be open under the current Covid-19 law, including supermarkets, pharmacies, but also pet food stores and newsagents for example. Previously these could stay open until 9pm.

“Although retail employees are the largest professional group in Austria, they are regularly forgotten by the Ministry of Health,” union chairperson Barbara Teiber said when first calling for early closure last week.

She argued that this was a necessary safety precaution for shop employees, particularly women, to feel safer returning home on emptier than usual dark winter streets. 

“Female retail workers in particular do not want to go home in the dark through deserted alleys. In addition, shorter opening times ensure secure staff capacity. In this difficult situation, it is not possible for retail employees, who often have care responsibilities, to step in all the time,” Teiber said.

The earlier closure was also a rule during previous lockdowns, but was changed earlier this summer.

READ ALSO: Can I leave Austria to go on holiday during the lockdown?

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COVID-19

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.

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