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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EXPLAINED: How Austria’s compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

The much-debated policy sparked controversy since before it was approved in February, meaning that May could be a definitive month in the country.

EXPLAINED: How Austria's compulsory vaccine mandate could be back in June

Austria’s Federal Government has a ticking time bomb on its hands: an ordinance that suspended its vaccine mandate law is set to expire by the end of May, which means that the controversial mandatory vaccination would be again in place as early as June 1st.

In order to keep that from happening, Austria’s Health Ministry needs to extend the current regulation or create a new one.

If it doesn’t, the Covid-19 mandatory vaccination law would automatically be back in June.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: What are Austria’s plans to bring back the vaccine mandate?

Since, by June, the vaccine mandate stated that non-vaccinated would start getting fines, the resumption of the law would mean that, from next month, those who are not vaccinated could be fined in routine checks, such as traffic checks.

The ins and outs of the vaccine mandate

The law was first introduced in February, even though the technical requirements for it to be enacted were not in place. The first stage of it was purely “informational”, and Austrian residents received letters explaining about vaccines and about the regulation.

A second stage, when people could have been fined if they were not vaccinated, was set to start in mid-March. Before a single person was fined, though, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) suspended the law with an ordinance.

The law was suspended for a variety of reasons, primarily due to the relatively high vaccination coverage the country had already received, along with the lower virulence of the Omicron variant. 

READ ALSO: Austria to scrap mandatory Covid vaccinations

To create a new regulation or extend the existing one stopping people from being fined, Rauch must await the report of the vaccination commission, which should be ready in May, according to the Ministry.

The coronavirus commission will assess whether the Vaccination Act is suitable and useful from a medical and legal point of view. A previous report said there were arguments for and against mandatory vaccination for those who were completely unvaccinated.

READ ALSO: How Austria’s attempt to make vaccines mandatory changed the country

Der Standard reports there is little political support for compulsory vaccination and says there are still technical problems regarding automated fines. However, according to the Ministry of Health, the infrastructure should be completed in June.