Will Austria announce further relaxations of Covid measures this week?

There are positive signs that Austria may have reached the peak of its Omicron wave in some regions, with a declining 14-day trend in Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol, but what does that mean for the future of Austria's Covid measures?

Will Austria announce further relaxations of Covid measures this week?
People with FFP2 protective face masks in Vienna. Photo: Alex Halada/AFP

All of Austria is still marked as ‘red’ or ‘very high risk’ by the Corona Commission, with a nationwide 14-day incidence rate approaching 2,500 (new confirmed cases per 100,000 residents).

To reach these classifications, each region is awarded a ‘risk number’ based on factors including new cases, hospital occupancy, but also things like the vaccination status and age of those who test positive. Vienna has the lowest risk number currently (1,144) but remains a long way from the under-100 value needed to lower its risk classification.

But despite repeated daily records for case numbers, the situation is not as severe as was first feared when the variant hit, with just under 200 people currently in Austria’s intensive care units for Covid-19, a number that was around 600 in December.

And Vienna, Salzburg and Tyrol — the countries which saw the quickest initial spread of Omicron — are showing signs that they may have passed the peak.

Despite being one of the countries with the strictest Covid rules in Western Europe, Austria has already begun to relax its restrictions.

As of Saturday, proof of 2G is no longer required for non-essential retail or for cultural venues like museums, libraries and galleries, while the 10pm curfew for restaurants was pushed back to midnight the week before.

On Monday, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein promised that there would be further relaxations in March, saying that this was possible due to the apparent drop in severe cases, which he attributed to Austria’s high rate of booster vaccinations.

Any further changes decided at the summit should be presented in detail on February 19th, according to Mückstein, who said he wanted to present a plan that looked beyond March.

Some of the rules still in place include FFP2 mask requirements in most public places (for example in shops, museums, on public transport and in restaurants except when seated); a 2G requirement for restaurants which is already set to be extended to 3G from Saturday February 19th; and a 3G requirement for workplaces as well as a recommendation to work from home if possible.

In neighbouring Germany, plans are reportedly underway for almost all Covid measures to be lifted in a phased plan by March 20th.

And ahead of a summit on Wednesday between Austria’s government and regional leaders, voices are growing stronger in favour of Austria following a similar path.

Of course, the other key topic up for debate at the summit will be Austria’s highly controversial Covid-19 vaccination mandate.

Although it came into force from the start of the month, the first checks and fines are not set to happen until March, and with the apparent signs towards a decline in the Omicron wave, more and more regional governors are calling for a rethink.

Vorarlberg’s governor has suggested keeping the mandate but not issuing any fines, while the governors of Salzburg and Carinthia have called for the proportionality of the law to be reassessed.

Besides these major questions, further issues on the agenda for the summit include whether to evaluate Austria’s use of free Covid tests, and whether to change the rules for quarantine after contact with a positive case or a confirmed infection.

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

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

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

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”