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COVID-19 RULES

Will Austria ease its Covid restrictions soon?

Calls for removing some of Austria's stringent Covid-19 measures are growing, but the Health Minister has not yet given any sign that the restrictions will be removed in the near future.

People in masks in Vienna
People with FFP2 protective face masks wait in front of a shop in the well-known shopping street Mariahilferstrasse in Vienna on February 8, 2021. Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the government confirmed that the lockdown for the unvaccinated would end on January 31st. You can read the latest on that story by clicking here.

Austria still has a raft of Covid-19 restrictions in place. The most severe include a full lockdown for people without proof of 2G (full vaccination or recovery from Covid-19), which has been in place since November 15th last year, and is currently set to remain until at least the end of January

But political support for the measure, which is difficult to enforce in practice, is waning with all three opposition parties voting against it in the last National Council vote.

Other measures include the current 10pm curfew on restaurants and bars, and the requirement for non-essential retail businesses to carry out checks of customers’ 2G proof. Nightclubs and apres ski venues are completely closed and have been since November, and alongside these restrictions there are other rules in place including a legal requirement to wear FFP2 masks in most public spaces, and a recommendation for home-working wherever possible.

READ ALSO: Everything that changes about life in Austria in January 2022

Who is calling for restrictions to be eased?

Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) has long been against the stringent Covid measures, and in recent weeks there are signs political support is waning from across the political spectrum, with all three opposition parties voting against the most recent extension of the lockdown for the unvaccinated.

The NEOS have called for an end to the partial lockdown, as have some leading figures in the SPÖ.

The governors of Tyrol, Vorarlberg, Carinthia and Burgenland, of the ÖVP, ÖVP, SPÖ and SPÖ respectively and have called for an end to the 10pm curfew and lockdown for the unvaccinated. 

The Head of Retail at Austria’s Chamber of Commerce, Rainer Trefelik, has called for both the end to the lockdown for the unvaccinated and the requirement for retail businesses to check 2G proof.

In Vienna, centre-left mayor Michael Ludwig has said that he preferred not to speculate ahead of the discussions, stating that it causes confusion if different politicians each give their own thoughts. 

And the Greens, the party of Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein, have generally been more cautious than the other parties. In Tyrol, the governor’s deputy is a Green Party member, and has said she would prefer to wait until the Omicron wave is past its peak before any relaxations are brought in.

READ ALSO: Eight signs you’ve settled into life in Austria

What are the arguments for and against easing restrictions?

The main argument in favour of keeping the restrictions is caution, to continue curbing the spread of the virus until Austria is definitely past the peak of the wave.

One question here is exactly how effective the current rules are at limiting the spread.

Tyrol governor Günther Platter said the 10pm curfew had little “epidemiological sense” due to the likelihood that people would continue to mix in private homes after this time.

And since its introduction, the lockdown for unvaccinated people has been criticised as difficult to enforce, although police have stepped up their checks on busy areas.

Another question is whether it is still justified to impose such severe limitations on citizens in the interest of curbing the spread of the virus, particularly given the fact that the Omicron variant is associated with lower risks of severe illness, despite its higher transmissibility. This is a tough balance to strike, because some people will still get severely ill from Omicron, especially those in high risk groups.

But some other countries in Europe are beginning to lift restrictions as part of the process of ‘living with the virus’. 

That includes the Netherlands, where bars, restaurants and cultural venues are re-opening after over a month despite case numbers still rising; Denmark, which plans to lift all restrictions by the end of the month despite a seven-day incidence rate over 5,000; and Spain, where the government plans to treat Covid like flu by relaxing both restrictions and the close monitoring of new cases.

READ ALSO: How does Austria’s Covid ‘traffic light’ risk classification work?

The Spanish government has made the argument that we are in a different situation in the pandemic than we were at the start or even one year ago. While Spain can boast a much higher vaccination uptake than Austria, three quarters of the total Austrian population have now had at least one dose, and much more is known about the virus.

The situation is different here too: When the lockdown for the unvaccinated was first brought in, the number of people in Austria’s ICUs for Covid was around 600 while today the number is just below 200 — though there’s always a lag between a rise in cases and a rise in hospital and intensive care admissions, so this is likely to rise. The governors of Vorarlberg and Carinthia are among the politicians who have pointed to this change as justification for lifting the partial lockdown.

Austria is also introducing its vaccine mandate from February, which is one reason that spokespeople for the retail sector have said the task of checking 2G proof should no longer fall to their workers.

READ ALSO: Who is exempt from Austria’s new vaccine mandate?

So what has the Health Minister said?

So far, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein has not confirmed any plans to relax the current restrictions given the continued rise in cases amid the Omicron wave.

During a visit to a healthcare centre in Vienna on Tuesday, he told reporters that the measures are constantly evaluated and would only remain in place as long as they were “epidemiologically necessary”.

The government doesn’t unilaterally decide on Covid measures. It communicates regularly with the Covid Crisis Coordination Commission (Gecko) made up of scientific experts, and decisions are made between the government and the heads of Austria’s nine regions.

It is likely that the lockdown for people without 2G will be extended for another ten days on Friday, to avoid a gap between this and the vaccine mandate, which will be confirmed at the start of February, but Austria’s Minister for the Constitution Karoline Edtstadler has already said she wants to review it at this point.

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, the government confirmed that the lockdown for the unvaccinated would in fact end on January 31st, with “all other” measures remaining in place. You can read the latest on that story by clicking here.

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TRAVEL NEWS

LATEST: What are Austria’s current Covid-19 rules?

Travellers entering the country no longer need to show proof of vaccination or a negative test, but masks are still mandatory in some places.

LATEST: What are Austria's current Covid-19 rules?

From Monday, May 16th, travellers coming into Austria no longer need to present proof that they have either been vaccinated against Covid-19, have tested negative for the disease, or recently recovered from it.

Previously, the so-called 3G rules were in place for all people coming into Austria, with very few exceptions.

The government over the weekend dropped the requirements just ahead of warmer months, stating that the epidemiological situation no longer justified them.

On Sunday, 15th, Austria reported 3,777 new coronavirus cases after just under 110,000 PCR tests were taken. In total, 807 people are currently hospitalised with the disease, and 62 are in intensive care units. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,303 people have died from Covid-19 in Austria.

Despite dropping the entry requirements, the federal government reiterated that the rules could change, mainly if a variant of concern is found.

READ ALSO: Austria extends Covid regulations as experts warn of autumn resurgence

Domestically, Austria still has a few coronavirus restrictions in place, including an FFP2 mask mandate in some areas.

These are the latest rules you need to be aware of:

FFP2 mask mandate

The obligation to wear an FFP2 mask only applies in enclosed spaces of hospitals, elderly and nursing homes, public transport (including stops and stations), taxis, customer areas of vital trade, such as supermarkets, and administrative buildings.

The mask mandate is no longer in place for enclosed places like gyms, restaurants and bars, and cultural establishments, but masks are still recommended.

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

Isolation after a positive test

After the fifth day of isolation and at least 48 hours without symptoms, you can end quarantine for mild or asymptomatic cases.

However, there is a “traffic restriction” for another five days, with a mask mandate and no entry permitted in gastronomy venues, health and care homes, and events during this period.

READ ALSO: Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

In order to obtain an early lifting of the restrictions, a free PCR test can be carried out. If the test is negative or with a CT value (short for Cycle Threshold and is the gold standard for detecting Covid-19) above 30, the isolation can be lifted.

If the value is below 30, then you must remain in isolation.

Vienna doesn’t follow the ‘traffic restriction’, so the only way to end the 10-day isolation is with a PCR test (negative or CT value below 30) after two symptom-free days.

You can find more information on federal restrictions on the government website here.

The 3G rule

A 3G rule (proof that a person has either been vaccinated against Covid-19, recently recovered from the disease or has a negative test) is generally only needed for visitors, employees and service providers in hospitals and care homes.

READ ALSO: Ba.4 and Ba.5 Covid variants detected in Austria: What you need to know

In Vienna, on the other hand, the rules are stricter.

Visitors and workers need to have the 3G proof plus a negative PCR test. However, the city has dropped 2G rules for gastronomy and nightclubs – the only places where it was still required to show proof of vaccination or recovery.

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