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COVID-19 RULES

EXPLAINED: How exactly does Austria’s new rule for masks outdoors work?

As of January 11th, Austria's FFP2 mask mandate is extended to cover some outdoor areas. Here's a close look at where you do and don't have to wear the mask.

A sign informs people to cover mouth and nose with an FFP2 mask
A sign informs people to cover mouth and nose with an FFP2 mask. Photo: Christof Stache/AFP

FFP2 masks are already required on public transport (including at stops and stations), in all shops and other indoor areas including hairdressers, museums, workplaces and at events for example.

The change extending this to outdoor spaces comes into effect from January 11th. 

This is not be a blanket rule to cover all outdoor public spaces, but rather those where a two-metre distance cannot be kept from people from other households.

“Whenever I am encountering people, I must wear a mask,” Chancellor Karl Nehammer said at the press conference announcing the measures. 

However, the final text of the law appears to be slightly more lenient. 

Situations where the two-metre distance is only broken for a short amount of time, for example when passing someone on a pavement, are excluded from the rule. 

It applies for example in queues, at markets or other events, or in crowded areas. Ministers and regional officials have said that police will enforce the rules, with a focus on areas known to experience crowding, but that the focus will be on explaining the rules to people.

The requirement to wear a mask outdoors in these situations is initially in place until January 20th.

EXPLAINED: What are the Covid-19 rules in Austria now?

Regions will also have the authority to introduce mask mandates in particularly crowded outdoor areas locally. This was also the case last year, when Vienna introduced such a mandate along the Danube Canal, a popular spot for walking and visiting the bars and restaurants along its banks.

At the moment for most adults, only FFP2 masks can be worn, though at different points in the pandemic Austria has relaxed rules slightly to allow cloth or surgical face masks. For children aged under 7, no mask is required, and for children aged under 14 and pregnant women a cloth or surgical face mask may be worn as an alternative to FFP2 masks.

LEARN MORE: Where to find the latest Covid-19 information for your region of Austria

FFP2 masks offer better protection against the coronavirus and other pathogens than the cloth or surgical equivalents, with a higher proportion of aerosols filtered out. They are also generally easier to fit over both mouth and nose, although getting a well-fitting mask is still important.

As well as the change to the mask mandate, Austria’s government on Thursday also announced shorter quarantines for contacts of positive Covid cases, and 2G checks to be required in shops.

Like many other countries across Europe, Austria is currently tightening its Covid measures in response to the Omicron wave of Covid-19. Italy for example made face masks compulsory in outdoor spaces from late December.

“We will do everything we can to avoid another lockdown,” Chancellor Nehammer said on Thursday. 

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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