UPDATED: Austria brings back mandatory FFP2 masks indoors as Covid cases soar

Austria's federal government has reinstated some Covid rules after seeing record infection numbers in the country.

man vaccinated against covid wearing masks in austria
A man is vaccinated at a vaccination station installed at a BILLA Plus (REWE Group) supermarket in Vienna on August 25, 2021 during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. (Photo by ALEX HALADA / AFP)

Austria will reintroduce the FFP2 mask mandate for all public indoor areas starting March 23rd, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said on Friday.

Vienna continues to operate under stricter rules with proof of 2G (vaccinated or recovered) required to enter cafes, bars and restaurants.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Austria’s new Covid-19 testing rules

Masks are mandatory for all closed indoor public spaces, means of transport, throughout trade, for physical services, in gastronomy (but not while sitting), in hotels, sports facilities, in cultural and leisure facilities, at places of work, in retirement and nursing homes and in hospitals.
A mask must be worn when entering a workplace if the risk of catching Covid-19 is not minimised by other protective measures. The mask mandate does not apply to people that work alone but it does apply to indoor meetings of more than 100 people unless everyone can provide proof of 3G – same rules for nightclubs. 

Rauch stated that the relaxation of measures announced earlier in the month were taken based on case numbers falling, but that scenario has not come about. Additionally, the situation in hospitals is “worrying”, the minister said.

Therefore, the federal government decided to take steps to protect the critical infrastructure in the health and care sector, with a quarantine obligation eased to ensure staff continue operating in hospitals and nursing homes.

Nothing will change regarding the test system, which introduces a monthly limit of 5 PCR tests and 5 antigen tests for residents. However, there is now an official government recommendation to work from home wherever possible.

READ ALSO: ‘The pandemic has not been mastered’: Vienna to tighten Covid measures

He added that the experts expect the infection numbers to increase for at least two weeks, with more than 50,000 new cases per day.

On Friday, Austria recorded 51,112 new coronavirus cases, according to the Health Ministry. More than 3,000 people are hospitalised with the virus, and 207 patients are in intensive care. Austria still has one of  the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe, as fewer than 70 percent of the population are fully vaccinated.

“Only the vaccine prevents a complete collapse in the health sector”, Rauch said, asking people to continue taking the vaccine and supporting the third dose. In addition, he announced there would be a new vaccination campaign throughout the country.

Reopenings came ‘too soon’

Rauch admitted that the easing of measures on March 5th was “too early and too far-reaching”. Last month, the federal government announced the end of most Covid restrictions in the alpine country, including dropping the 3G and 2G rules (vaccinated, recovered, or tested) for entry into most places.

At the same time, it suspended a vaccine mandate as it was set to start checking and giving fines for unvaccinated people by mid-March.

The relaxation of measures was widely criticised in Austria. The capital Vienna announced it would not follow the reopening steps, keeping a 2G rule in gastronomy and the indoor mask mandate.

Resignations with GECKO

During a press conference, the health minister confirmed resignations within the expert corona commission, the so-called GECKO. There had been several rumours in Austrian media that some members were unhappy with the relaxations.

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

The minister said the head of Austria’s Red Cross, Gerry Foitik, resigned his position this Friday. Rauch apologised to the experts that felt like they had not been heard through the process.

Rauch recently took over as Health Minister after his predecessor, Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens), resigned on March 4th.

Please note: A version of this article previously stated that venues like bars and restaurants would be able to decide either to have masks or 3G rules, which was incorrect. This has been updated. As at April 8th, 2022, only gatherings of over 100 people without seats are permitted to make this choice. 

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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.