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Austria is easing its coronavirus lockdown after six weeks, despite stubbornly high infection numbers.
While the government is keeping bars, restaurants and hotels closed and a nighttime curfew in place, schools, hairdressers and museums reopened on Monday under strict hygiene rules as testing capacities were expanded.
The move came amid growing pressure on Vienna to lift at least some restrictions, with data showing that Austria’s economic downturn is particularly severe. In the fourth quarter of 2020, the economy contracted by 4.3 percent over the previous quarter amid slumping tourism, the worst performance of any EU country for that period.
Vienna’s decision to reopen despite high infection rates illustrates the risks some governments are willing to take amid a worsening economic outlook and the growing unwillingness of their citizens to accept restrictions on daily life.
“Over the past two weeks, our infection numbers have stopped dropping because fewer and fewer people are complying with the rules,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told German media on Sunday. “It makes no sense to remain in a strict lockdown while the population’s willingness to participate is declining.”
Kurz has faced criticism from Germany over his decision, especially in Bavaria, the only German state that borders Austria.
“Austria and the Czech Republic are jeopardizing our successes in Germany with their irresponsible opening policies,” tweeted Markus Blume, general secretary of Bavaria’s governing Christian Social Union (CSU). “If the Czech Republic and Tyrol are mutation areas, then this must also be established and the borders sealed off.”
Particular worrisome is Tyrol, the Austrian state that gained notoriety last March when tourists in the ski resort Ischgl helped spread the coronavirus across Europe. The region has recently been making headlines again due to an outbreak of the South African variant of the virus.
In January, a cluster of infections with the variant — believed to be significantly more contagious than the original coronavirus as well as more resistant to some vaccines — was discovered in a ski resort in the Zillertal valley.
On Monday, health authorities reported that Tyrol has so far had 293 cases of the mutated virus, the vast majority of Austria’s total. The state’s leaders were in talks with Vienna over the weekend about whether to seal off Tyrol entirely to prevent the mutated virus from spreading further, but the two sides eventually agreed to merely issue a travel warning and ramp up testing and sequencing.
Late on Sunday, the president of Tyrol’s chamber of commerce, Christoph Walser, fiercely criticized the idea of singling out the state.
“For months, the finger has been pointed at Tyrol … and now we are simply fed up with having to constantly stand in the limelight and be judged,” he said. He implied that Tyrol could threaten to disrupt traffic between Germany and Italy in retaliation.
While restaurants and hotels in Tyrol have remained closed since Christmas — forgoing the winter holiday break that’s financially pivotal for Austria’s tourism industry – ski resorts are open, much to the delight of the local population.
Austrian-German relations soured temporarily in December, when a debate about whether to allow ski tourism over the winter saw Kurz clash with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wanted to ban ski vacations altogether. Kurz called her position “excessive.”
With hotels closed and non-essential travel curtailed, a normal ski season was off the table from the beginning. But the Austrian government decided, controversially, to open ski resorts at Christmas.
Defenders of that decision said it’s unclear how far winter sports without aprés ski and partying elevate a region’s risk of coronavirus outbreaks. The chairman of Austria’s professional ski lift association, Franz Hörl, issued a statement calling criticism from Germany and elsewhere “unfounded.”
“There is no risk of infection from winter sports, including cable car operation,” he wrote. “No cluster could be found and no increased risk of infection could be determined.”
That reassurance hasn’t convinced the CSU’s Blume, who on Sunday went so far as to suggest closing the German border with Austria if the mutations don’t get under control.
“We don’t want a second Ischgl effect for all of Europe,” he said.
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