ANALYSIS: Are Vienna’s tighter Covid measures ‘a mistake’?

Vienna's decision to keep Covid rules place puts it at odds with the rest of the country. Austrian journalist Stefan Haderer asks if the decision is prudent pandemic management or a barrier in the journey back to normality.

Vienna Mayor Michael Ludwig. Photo: JOE KLAMAR / AFP

After four lockdowns and despite constantly high numbers of Covid-19 infections, Austrians celebrated their “Freedom Day” on March 5th.

Many Corona restrictions were dropped, including the heavily disputed 2G rule.

In the eyes of Vienna’s mayor Michael Ludwig easing the Corona restrictions in Austria was “a mistake”.

Vienna remains vigilant by maintaining several restrictions such as “2G” and registration in restaurants and clubs – much to the dismay of many politicians and business owners.

EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s new Covid rules?

The capital’s “tough way” and its fervent testing strategy have also caused growing discontent among health experts and dissent in the social media.

Critics see more harm than good for the population and negative effects, both economic and social, in the long run.

But why is Mayor Ludwig insisting on his own way and, as his opponents claim, undermining a national Corona strategy?

Vienna’s eager Covid testing is questioned

Ludwig’s main argument is to stay cautious and avoid chaos in hospitals by an unforeseen rise in patients. Compared to all other Austrian provinces though, Vienna still has the highest number of cases, with about 9,000 new infections registered on March 8th.

The fact that infections in Austria are on a constantly high level may be due to excessive testing, experts say.

Spending more than 2.6 billion Euros on free PCR and antigen tests, Austria has become an undisputed “Covid testing champion” at least in Europe – with little positive output after contact-tracing has collapsed and national debt is skyrocketing.  

Virologists and health experts, including members of the Gecko Corona committee, now openly speak out against “mass testing” and demand a shift towards specified and targeted testing.

The government has announced to stop free Covid testing as of April this year. Ludwig and his team are alarmed.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Vienna’s mayor Michael Ludwig hold their novel coronavirus antigen rapid tests (ALEX HALADA / AFP)

His party, SPÖ Vienna, tweeted that testing has become “a good tradition we shouldn’t throw overboard.” The tweet has sparked outraged reactions among social media users.

Young mothers, in particular, keep writing posts about feeling “harassed” by having their children tested at school at least twice a week and their fear of ongoing quarantines and home-schooling. 

In interviews, older citizens tend to show more understanding for Vienna’s “cautious way” in a pandemic full of surprises, new variants and unexpected waves.

However, they unanimously agree to be confused by the rules and measures taken in Austria, which differ from region to region.

Ludwig’s insistence on a tougher strategy in Vienna has largely contributed to this perception, critics admonish.

And the government’s recent decision to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations is just another piece in the puzzle of an apparently incoherent and contradictory national communication strategy.

UPDATED: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

A strategy that failed?

Since former chancellor Sebastian Kurz turned away from the ÖVP’s traditional coalition partner SPÖ, the relationship between Austria’s two largest parties has become frozen.

The months after the first lockdown in March 2020 have been marked by dispute, dissent and allegations, especially between the ÖVP-Green government and the SPÖ.

Before stepping down due to chat and corruption affairs, Kurz stated several times that the pandemic was over, thanking his team on posters for successfully managing the Corona crisis.

As Austria went into another lockdown in autumn 2022, the population’s confidence in the government had plummeted.  

Ludwig reiterated that the pandemic “was not over” by choosing a more stringent and consistent approach for Vienna, a path other SPÖ-governed provinces refuse to take.

According to a survey by the “Market Institut”, over 48 percent of the interviewees would still vote for Michael Ludwig as a mayor. Public opinion in social media and forums, however, is far more critical. Many users agree with Elisabeth Köstinger, Austria’s Minister of Tourism, who has called Ludwig to “stick to experts’ opinions” and put an end to stricter measures causing even more damage in the hospitality and tourism sectors.

When the mayor announced that the 2G rule would remain in force in Vienna at least until April, a large number of commentators announced they would rather eat out in nearby Lower Austria or Burgenland without any “senseless restrictions” which will “never be terminated” in the capital.

READ MORE: Could Austria’s mandatory Covid-19 vaccination return in autumn?

The mayor’s fiercest critics argue that Vienna’s “testing mania” has proved to be inefficient and costly. Some warn that certain measures in Austria have largely contributed to social polarisation resulting in ongoing anti-Corona demonstrations along the Ringstrasse.

There are also voices in favour of carefully easing further restrictions. However, they wonder why Ludwig mainly relies on Corona testing while he neglects other more fact-based and less costly measures like regular disinfection on buses and trains. 

The Gecko committee and the Austrian government have not agreed on what their future Corona strategy will be like. Experts hope that in the coming months communication will be at least more clear. This may also depend on a less federalist approach.

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Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

As Covid-19 infection numbers continue rising, Austria's government doesn't rule out a comeback of the mask requirement.

Will Austria bring back its mask mandate before autumn?

Austria has seen rising Covid-19 numbers for weeks, and the country’s traffic light commission has increased the risk rating of all federal states, with none currently designated as “low risk”.

Virologists and health experts have given many explanations for rising numbers and forecast that new infections, currently at more than 12,000 a day, could reach more than 30,000 in the next few weeks.

Austria’s Covid commission said that the omicron subvariant BA.4/BA.5 is a decisive factor in the increase, as it is considered more infectious. “Additionally, an increased proportion of travel-associated cases has been observed in recent weeks”, the commission stated.

READ ALSO: LATEST: These are the Covid rules in Austria and Vienna from June 2022

Dorothee von Laer, a Med-Uni Innsbruck virologist, told Der Standard that the new subvariant could be responsible for a new wave as “the protection we have from BA1 infections, and from vaccinations, is not so good against BA.4/BA.5”.

“So people who were infected early on, or who are only vaccinated, have of course some protection against hospitalisation, but almost no or very little protection against infection”, she said.

Von Laer mentioned other factors that likely contributed to the increasing numbers, including the fact that people have stopped wearing masks after the requirement was dropped in most of Austria.

Are masks about to make a comeback?

When Austria’s federal government announced they would drop the Covid mask mandate, they phrased it as a “pause” to the FFP2 masks, which were still mandatory in essential trade and public transport.

Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said that the mask requirement will be “paused”, as the pandemic is not over yet, and that people should be prepared for a resumption of the rules after summer, as The Local reported.

BACKGROUND: Austria to ‘pause’ Covid mask mandate from June 1st

Many experts believe FFP2 masks won’t be optional for long if numbers continue rising. Von Laer said, “we will probably have to resort to the mask again, even if the hospitals are not overcrowded because we want to protect the vulnerable people”.

The health minister had already stated that it is time people “take personal responsibility” so that they choose to wear masks in crowds or when close to vulnerable people.

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

However, he recently added that if the situation “goes in the direction of overloading the health system, then, of course, I am also obliged to react”.

The minister also said he reassesses the situation every week, observing developments in other countries.

‘We will have to learn’

For Rauch, people will need to learn to live with the masks, as future waves can also be expected in the coming years. He added that we would have to learn to take personal responsibility, make self-assessments, and have solidarity.

READ ALSO: Austria sees scores of flight cancellations after airline staff contact Covid

He also assumes more flexible measures in the future. For example, public transport signs will ask for the mask mandate during morning traffic hours, but not on empty evening trains.

His goal, the minister stated, was to find a middle ground between demanding as few restrictions as possible and exercising caution.

Covid-19 stats

Austria on Wednesday reported 12,509 new coronavirus infections after 169,948 PCR tests, according to the Health Ministry.

There were 856 people in hospitals with Covid-19 and 47 in intensive care. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 18,779 people have died from the disease.

The country has just over 61 percent of its population with a valid vaccination pass.