Austria reopens thousands of shops in first loosening of coronavirus lockdown

A man wheels a shopping cart outside a hardware store during the partial reopening of shops after the Austrian government loosens its lockdown restrictions during the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Vienna, Austria, April 14, 2020. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

Austria allowed thousands of shops to reopen on Tuesday, becoming one of the first countries in Europe to loosen its lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Austria acted early in its outbreak to close schools, bars, theatres, restaurants, non-essential shops and other gathering places roughly four weeks ago. It has told the public to stay home and work from there if possible.

The Alpine republic has fared relatively well so far, having reported 384 deaths in total, fewer than some larger European countries have been suffering each day. The daily increase in confirmed cases has fallen to low single digits in percentage terms and hospitalisations have stabilised.

“I am incredibly relieved, both for my colleagues and for myself because it was a very, very long time for us, and above all an uncertain time,” Vienna florist Barbara Kugler said as she bought plants at a wholesale market.

Last week, the government outlined a step-by-step plan to reopen parts of the economy, starting with shops of up to 400 square metres (4,300 square feet)- roughly twice the playing area of a singles tennis court – as well as all DIY and garden centres on Tuesday.

They are due to be followed by shopping centres, larger shops and hairdressers from May 1.

The previously bustling centre of Vienna was still quiet on Tuesday morning amid a cold snap. But DIY stores were busy, with long but orderly lines of shoppers outside pushing trolleys, reflecting the modified needs of a self-isolating public.

“I have work to do in my garden and that will be my project over the next few days,” software developer Ewald Wallner said as he queued at a DIY centre in the eastern town of Eisenstadt.

STEADY ON

The crowds prompted Interior Minister Karl Nehammer to tell a news conference: “The DIY shop will stay open. You don’t have to get everything done today.”

It remains unclear whether, even with limits on the number of people allowed inside shops and a requirement for all shoppers to wear face masks, the government is sending a mixed message about the lockdown in place until the end of April.

“It’s causing confusion because it’s like holding a carrot in front of a donkey. You can (go out), you see that shops are open, but on the other hand people are unsure because they’re also not supposed to go out on the street, and sometimes get fined if they’re too close together,” Kugler, the florist, said.

Each week of lockdown has cost Austria’s economy 0.53% of yearly gross domestic product, or 2.1 billion euros ($2.3 billion), its central bank has estimated.

“Please stay strong, please keep holding on. The crisis is far from having been overcome,” conservative Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a news conference, saying a first step had been made towards a “new normal”.

Other European countries are loosening their lockdowns, albeit differently. On Monday, Spain allowed some activities, including construction and manufacturing, to resume. Denmark is reopening daycare centres and some schools on Wednesday.