Austria to keep masks only in ‘essential places’ from April 16th

The "green pass" will be valid for 12 months for people who received a booster dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, Austria's Health Minister Johannes Rauch says.

Could the relaxation of Covid measures in Austria be behind the spike in infections? Photo: Christof STACHE / AFP
Austria "paused" its FFP2 mask mandate Photo: Christof STACHE / AFP

Austria has announced it will drop a general mask mandate on Saturday, April 16th, but keep it for essential indoor areas such as the health sector, supermarkets, and public transport.

“Nobody wants to wear a mask during summer, but these small requirements are basic measures”, Health Minister Johannes Rauch (Greens) said during a press conference on Thursday, April 14th.

Currently, Austria has an FFP2 mask mandate in all indoor areas, including trade and cultural and leisure facilities. The obligation to wear a mask in these areas will fall from this Saturday.

In retirement homes and hospitals, the 3G rule remains in place, Rauch said. Visitors will need to show proof that they are either vaccinated, recently recovered from Covid-19 or have tested negative for the virus.

All rules apply until July 8th, at least.

The easing of restrictions is only possible as the country has seen fewer new cases of Covid-19, Rauch stated. However, Austria needs to be prepared for the autumn and winter months.

READ ALSO: Vienna: How tourists, visitors (and residents) can get free Covid tests

“The best preparation and protection is the vaccination. My recommendation to all who are not yet vaccinated or are only two times vaccinated is: go protect yourselves, vaccinate”, he said.

According to the minister, the government expects a booster campaign in late August or September – to offer protection ahead of the colder months.

The federal government’s measures are the minimal national requirements, but states can adopt tougher restrictions.

So far, only the state of Vienna has announced it might take a different path, and SPÖ Mayor Michael Ludwig has scheduled a press conference for later this Thursday.

Changes do the Green Pass

Austria’s Health Minister announced changes to the validity of the Green Pass. The country will follow European Union’s directives, and the booster shot should be valid for 12 months, he said.

The Pass will be valid for six months for double vaccinated or recovered people.

READ ALSO: Why are the numbers of fully-vaccinated people going down in Austria?

Rauch reiterated that the national immunisation board recommends the fourth vaccination only for risk groups, who should receive a fourth dose from four to six months after the third one.

There is no general recommendation for the second booster. However, people can still decide with their doctors whether they want to take it or not.

Vienna drops masks and 2G requirements

Austria’s capital Vienna is removing its main Covid restriction from Saturday, April 16th, meaning people will no longer need to present proof that they are vaccinated or recovered from the disease (2G rule) to enter bars and restaurants.

“We have decided to go along with the federal steps in a broad sense”, city councillor for Health Peter Hacker said in a press conference on Thursday afternoon.

As in the rest of the country, FFP2 masks are still mandatory in “essential” indoor public areas, including supermarkets and public transport, Hacker said. However, they are no longer required for sports, culture, and other indoor places.

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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.