Austrians relished one final mulled wine in crowded Christmas markets as the holiday season ended, throwing the country that gave the world “Silent Night” into its fourth pandemic lockdown on Monday.
People in Vienna’s capital awoke groggily to the new limitations, going to work, bringing their children to school, and exercising outside as normal.
This was not the severe lockdown that accompanied the outbreak of the epidemic in 2020, when all movements were closely watched and prohibited. Police cars circulated, in line with government vows to tighten restrictions, but there were no spot inspections.
“The lockdown irritates me much,” remarked Georg Huber, a lawyer on his way to work. “Isn’t it true that one should have done more research in the summer? It would have been better to impose an obligatory vaccine in the summer, when it became clear that hoping people would show up without pressure would not be adequate. I believe the administration just fell asleep at the wheel.”
Austria has one of the lowest immunization rates in Western Europe, with roughly 66 percent of its 8.9 million people receiving vaccinations. There is a vociferous minority who opposes vaccination.
On Friday, the government declared a statewide curfew after the average daily mortality rate quadrupled in recent weeks and hospitals in hard-hit areas warned that intensive care units were near capacity.
The new limits will last at least 10 days, but are likely to be extended for another 10, after which the government has stated that it intends to reopen so that Austrians may enjoy Christmas as usual. Unvaccinated people, on the other hand, will continue to face restrictions.
People can only leave their houses for particular purposes starting Monday, such as shopping, going to the doctor, or exercising. Kindergartens and schools will be open for those who require them, but parents are encouraged to keep their children at home if at all feasible.
The lockdown, according to Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein, is required to minimize the number of new daily infections, which have risen to as much as 15,000 per day, as well as the number of virus patients in intensive care, which presently stands at 531. It was also necessary to provide respite “to the individuals who work in this field, the nurses and physicians who can no longer handle it,” he said.
“We are in a situation where we must act right now.” “The only solution is to use a lockdown, which is a rather difficult procedure, to reduce the numbers with a wooden hammer,” Mueckstein told ORF on Sunday night.
Many Austrians did not take the vaccine program seriously enough after former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz proclaimed the epidemic “finished” last summer, according to political observers. Kurz was thrown out of office last month due to a corruption scandal, and was replaced by Alexander Schallenberg, his foreign minister, who, in less than a week, expanded the contentious vaccination ban to include everyone.
Schallenberg has also promised to make vaccines mandatory by February 1, while the details are still being worked out. Experts believe it may be restricted to specific age groups or perhaps linked to work, as Italy has done. In Italy, health permits are necessary to enter places of employment, and they may be obtained with a 48-hour negative test, as well as immunization or proof of recovery from the virus.
People gathered to Christmas markets on the eve of Austria’s newest lockdown for one final night of public mingling, and many spent the weekend getting a head start on holiday shopping before businesses shuttered. Sales were up 15% on Saturday, when queues developed to take advantage of “Black Friday” offers, according to the Austrian Trade Association, compared to the same day in 2019, before the epidemic.
However, many feared that the last-minute surge would not be enough to save the holiday season for businesses who rely on it.
Sophie Souffle, who sells upcycled jewelry at markets all year, said the six-week Christmas market time is when she makes the most money. “Any promised government assistance will be sufficient to get by,” she added, “but it will not be sufficient to invest for future business.”
People trawled stands, examining products rather than purchasing them, and gathered in small groups to enjoy each other’s company until gatherings were banned. She detected desperation rather than festive cheer.
She described the atmosphere as “pre-apocalyptic.”