Austria to open shops on last advent Sunday after lockdown

Shops which have been closed during Austria's lockdown will get a rare chance to open on a Sunday, helping businesses to make up for lost turnover.

Shoppers on Vienna's busy Mariahilferstrasse in winter last year
Even stores in Vienna's famous shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse close on Sundays. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The news came after the government on Tuesday officially extended the lockdown for an extra ten days, meaning December 11th will be the final day of the nationwide general lockdown (unless it is further extended, something the government has pledged not to do).

The extension was expected but needed to be done, since Austria’s Covid laws only allow the government to implement lockdown for a ten-day period at a time.

READ ALSO: When will Austria’s Covid lockdown end?

There are no big changes to the rules during the second half of the lockdown, except that from Thursday, essential shops will close early at 7pm rather than a latest permitted closing time of 9pm.

After lockdown however, non-essential businesses have been given the green light to open on the final Sunday of advent (December 19th) between 10am and 6pm despite Austria’s usually strict Sunday closing laws.

This will be the case as long as the pandemic situation allows, and will depend on regional governors also allowing it — of course individual businesses can then make their own decision on whether to open.

Retail workers’ union GPA said the one-off exception should not be seen as a move towards Sunday opening more generally. It also stated that retail workers who opt to work on this day will earn double pay plus an extra day off, any childcare costs must be covered, and working on the Sunday should be strictly voluntary.

READ ALSO: Seven weird things about life in Austria you need to get used to

“For the second year, Covid again creates an absolutely special situation just before Christmas. Around half of retail employees are affected by multiple lockdowns, by short-time working and wage losses due to the elimination of bonuses in the run-up to Christmas, and are concerned about their future. Many colleagues are therefore not averse to working on this Sunday as an exception,” union chairperson Barbara Teiber said.

The change only applies to those businesses which were closed during lockdown (with only Click & Collect services allowed), so for example clothes, books, furniture and leisure stores, but not supermarkets or pharmacies.

READ ALSO: Which businesses are still open during Austria’s lockdown?

“This will not change our attitude towards non-working Sundays for all retail employees and we will resolutely oppose any softening or extension of the opening times,” another GPA union spokesperson, Martin Müllauer, said.

Austria and in particular the capital region Vienna has frequently had debates on Sunday opening over the years, with churches and unions generally supportive of the current rules, but many businesses keen to extend their own opening hours.

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UPDATED: Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

As the number of Covid-19 infections and related hospitalisations rises in Austria, many are asking for new measures to be adopted, especially a mask mandate.

UPDATED: Will Austria bring back face mask mandate to battle rising Covid cases?

Austria has seen an increase in the number of Covid-19 cases and hospitalisations in recent weeks, with 2,428 people currently hospitalised with the disease, including 118 in intensive care (ICU).

One month ago, just 871 people were being treated in hospital with an additional 47 people in ICU.

The Austrian Federal Government has now said they will make a decision on bringing back the mask mandate by October 23rd. Last week, the National Covid Crisis Coordination (GECKO) recommended wearing FFP2 masks.

According to ORF, the mask mandate could return for public indoor spaces, public transport and in the gastronomy sector. The Austrian Trade Association has already rejected the suggestion saying it would be the “last straw” for employees as the industry struggles with staff shortages.

What are the Covid-19 experts predicting for the autumn and winter season?

The latest report from the Covid prognosis consortium in Austria predicts a rise in hospitalisations in October. 

In a “worst case” scenario, as many as 3,428 people who tested positive would need a hospital bed on October 19th, the latest forecast said. A “further significant increase in hospitalisation is to be expected, with the Covid population in the ICU area remaining almost unchanged”, the experts summarised.

READ ALSO: Reader question: When should I get a fourth dose of the Covid-19 vaccine in Austria?

In comparison, last autumn, the country was on an Austria-wide lockdown and on November 28th, there were 2,767 infected persons hospitalised.

However, the experts said there is a very high proportion of incidental findings among hospitalised patients. Only around 22 percent of those presently hospitalised were admitted with Covid-19 symptoms. In the intensive care unit, this proportion was only 12 percent – most people go to the hospital for other reasons and find they test positive for the coronavirus.

Calls for pandemic-containment measures

Still, the consortium warned about staff shortages in hospitals. “The increased infection pressure is currently also translating into above-average unplanned staff absences”, it wrote.

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

In view of the situation in the hospitals, experts are calling for the reintroduction of mandatory masks.

Virologist Dorothee von Laer from the Medical University of Innsbruck criticised the government, saying authorities were once again “too late” to take measures.

“We are now at the last push to reintroduce compulsory masks indoors so that the omicron wave from spring is not repeated,” the virologist told Kurier.

“How much longer to watch Covid go through the roof? Winter is still long, and hospitals are getting crowded with decreasing staff and increasing occupancy. Mask up! #CovidIsntOver,” Thomas Czypionka, Head of IHS Health Economics and Health Policy of the Institute for Advanced Studies (IHS), said on Twitter.

Currently, people in Austria only need to wear masks in the health sector area, such as in hospitals and elderly care homes. However, the capital Vienna has stricter rules, imposing a mask mandate on public transport.

Only in a ‘state of emergency’

Speaking to public broadcaster ORF, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) ruled out the immediate introduction of a mask mandate.

He said stricter rules would only be imposed if the situation in hospitals “escalates, becomes threatening, and a state of emergency occurs”.

READ ALSO: LATEST: The Covid rules across Austria

At the same time, he reiterated that the pandemic is not over and that when the government removed the mask mandate, it also announced the rules could be brought back in autumn.

“When the mask requirement was abolished in grocery stores and public transport in the spring, I already said: If it should become necessary again in the autumn, the general mask requirement will be reintroduced there”, he said.