VIENNA – Austria began a nationwide shutdown early Monday in a desperate attempt to prevent coronavirus infections from spiraling.
The shutdown in the Alpine nation comes as the average number of daily deaths has tripled in recent weeks, and some hospitals have warned that their intensive care units are reaching capacity. Officials said the lockdown would last at least 10 days but could be extended to 20 days. People will only be able to leave their homes for specific reasons, including grocery shopping, going to the doctor, or exercising.
Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg also announced last week that Austria would adopt a vaccine regulation from February 1. Details of how the mandate would work are still unclear, but the government has said that those who disobey orders face fines.
Schallenberg apologized to all those vaccinated on Friday, saying it was unfair for them to have to endure the new restrictions being put back on. Previously, Austria tried a containment measure only for the unvaccinated, but it was not enough to slow down infections.
“I regret taking this drastic step,” he said on public broadcaster ORF.
Not quite 66% of Austria’s 8.9 million people are fully immunized, and vaccination has reached a high at one of the lowest rates in Western Europe.
Austria is one of a number of Western European countries where infections are rapidly increasing and where there are concerns that vaccination rates are not enough to stem a winter surge in hospitals.
Thanks in large part to vaccinations, hospitals in Austria are not under the same pressure as they were before the pandemic, but many are still straining to handle the growing number of COVID-19 patients while also trying to Try to resolve backlogs with exhausted or sick employees.
Austria’s new lockdown is the fourth since the pandemic began and comes as the country has struggled unsuccessfully to contain a spiraling increase in the number of cases. On Friday, it reported 15,809 new infections, an all-time high.
Christmas markets, restaurants and most shops are closed for at least 10 days, while kindergartens and schools remain open to those in need, but all parents are asked to keep their children at home if possible.
After 10 days, the effect of the lock will be evaluated. If the virus cases have not completely subsided, it can be extended up to 20 days. The ban will then be lifted for all vaccinated people but could stay in place for those who refuse to be vaccinated, the government said.
The new measures, especially the regulation of vaccines, have met with fierce opposition from some in the country. A protest Saturday in the capital Vienna drew 40,000 people, including members of far-right parties and groups, according to police.