Austrians take advantage of last day before impending COVID-19 lockdown


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VIENNA – Under clear blue skies, Austrians enjoyed a final day in cafes and Christmas markets on Sunday before the government imposed a nationwide lockdown to fight a wave of coronavirus infections.

The measures, which will come into force on Monday morning, should last a maximum of 20 days but will be reassessed after 10 days. Restaurants and most stores will close and larger events will be canceled. Schools and daycares will remain open, but parents are encouraged to keep their children at home.

Austria hopes to lift the measures on December 13, but could maintain an additional lockdown for the unvaccinated.

Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg also announced on Friday that Austria would introduce a vaccine mandate from February 1. Details on how the mandate works are not yet clear.

With the lockdown looming, Christmas markets in central Vienna were filled with people eager to shop for gifts and enjoy one last round of hot drinks and food. At the Freyung Christmas Market in Vienna, Alexandra Ljesevic and her sister Anna sipped mulled wine and punch amid wooden stands and sparkling holiday lights.

“This is the last chance to feel the time and the vibes of Christmas,” said Alexandra Ljesevic.

The sisters said they felt luckier than most because their jobs would not be affected by the lockdown. But they’re not optimistic about reopening things on December 13.

“It would be weird if in 20 days they said, ‘Okay, for the vaccinated people, you are free to go,’ if the hospitals are still overwhelmed,” said Anna Ljesevic. “That’s the only reason we even need the lockdown.”

On the other side of the market, Maria Fernanda Monasterio tasted hot chocolate and lamented the market’s closure. She came almost daily to enjoy the atmosphere before the stalls closed.

“It’s the best time of year for me here in Vienna,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to be there.”

In an interview with the Kurier newspaper on Sunday, Schallenberg said it was “sad” that the Austrian government had to resort to a warrant in order to ensure that a sufficient number of people get vaccinated. Just under 66% of the 8.9 million Austrians are fully vaccinated, one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.

Austria reported 15,297 new infections on Saturday, after a week in which daily cases topped 10,000. Hospitals, especially those in the hardest-hit areas of Salzburg and Upper Austria, are overwhelmed as the number of coronavirus patients rises in intensive care units.

On the impending lockdown, Schallenberg said he and other officials had hoped this summer that such restrictions would no longer be necessary and that it was a difficult decision to impose a new lockdown that affected those vaccinated.

“That people’s freedoms have to be curtailed again is, believe me, also hard for me to endure,” he said.

The new measures, in particular the vaccine mandate, have met with strong opposition from some. A protest in the capital Vienna on Saturday drew 40,000 people, police said, including members of far-right parties and groups.

Home Secretary Karl Nehammer said on Sunday the coronavirus protest scene was radicalizing.

An “extremely diverse group of people” took part in the protests, Nehammer said, according to the Austrian news agency. They included concerned citizens but also known right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis, he said.

The lockdown is the most recent and stringent measure Austrian authorities have introduced to tackle a fourth wave of infections and deaths.

Earlier this month, the government first attempted to pressure unvaccinated people to receive the vaccine, denying them access to restaurants, hotels and major events. Then, authorities implemented lockdown measures only for unvaccinated people.

Nehammer said on Sunday that police carried out 150,000 checks for compliance with the new rules in just one week, according to the APA.

At the Christmas market on Vienna’s iconic Rathausplatz square, Rene Schlosser and Silvia Weidenauer sipped mulled wine from red heart-shaped mugs. They came for the day from their home in the Austrian region of Waldviertel to get a taste of the markets before everything stopped.

“You have to accept it,” Weidenauer said of the lockdown. “There is no other option. All you can do is hope that these days when everything is closed will really have an effect.”

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