Around 10,000 people rallied in the Austrian capital of Vienna on Saturday to protest coronavirus restrictions, calling on the government to resign, Austrian police said.
With the Alpine country currently in its third lockdown since March in a bid to bring the pandemic under control, and with non-essential shops, concert halls and theatres, sports centres and schools all closed, the protesters’ anger was directed at Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, as well as at the media.
“The numbers of deaths we’re being given, that’s rubbish. I don’t want to end up like China where you don’t have any right to do anything,” one woman who gave her first name as Gabi told AFP.
Brandishing banners proclaiming: “You’re the disease. We’re the cure” and waving Austrian flags, most of the demonstrators refused to wear masks or respect social distancing rules, including far-right politician and former deputy chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache.
A counter-demonstration organised by the far-left comprising a crowd of around 500, according to police estimates, also took place, denouncing “anti-mask lunacy”.
Austria, which has a population of 8.9 million, has reported a total 7,053 deaths from Covid-19 since the outbreak of the pandemic.
A panel of experts has recommended to Chancellor Kurz that the current restrictions should not be eased as planned on January 25, as the number of infections is showing no sign of slowing and the British variant of the virus continues to circulate.
The scientific advisers suggested making it mandatory to work from home and to extend the lockdown.
The government is scheduled to announce new measures on Sunday.
Austria’s government on Monday effectively extended its third coronavirus lockdown, scrapping a proposal that would have allowed citizens to access some services if they took part in a mass-testing programme.
The country’s current lockdown is scheduled to run until January 24.
However, the government had proposed that those who tested negative in a nationwide, free Covid-19 mass-testing programme be allowed to visit shops, event venues, restaurants, cafes and bars from January 18.
But the plan would have obliged those who did not participate to stay at home for a week longer.
Opposition parties harshly criticised the scheme, questioning the point of one-off tests and asking how the restrictions could be enforced.
After a high volume of complaints overwhelmed the parliament website, all three opposition parties on Sunday announced that they would block the necessary legislation in the upper chamber.
“That means that exiting lockdown early through getting a test won’t be possible,” Health Minister Rudolf Anschober said on Monday morning.
Shops, restaurants and other services will therefore remain closed until January 24.
As long as the number of new infections per day doesn’t come below 1,000, “there’s no point discussing relaxation measures”, Pamela Rendi-Wagner, head of the largest opposition Social Democrat (SPOe) party, said Sunday.
Currently, around 1,500 residents of the small, Alpine nation are testing positive per day.
The current, third lockdown came into effect on December 26, just twenty days after the previous lockdown ended.
Austria was generally seen to have acted swiftly during the first wave of the pandemic, escaping its worst effects, but critics have accused the government of failing to adequately prepare for the second wave.
The country’s per capita infection rates climbed to among the highest in the world in late November, outbreaks in elderly care facilities emerging as a particular problem in recent weeks.
A huge manhunt was underway Tuesday after gunmen opened fire at multiple locations across central Vienna, killing at least four people in what Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz described as a “repulsive terror attack”.
One of the suspected killers, identified as an Islamic State group sympathiser, was shot dead by police who said they were searching for at least one more assailant still at large.
The shooting rampage, in six locations including near a synagogue and the world-famous opera house in the heart of Vienna on Monday evening, was carried out by “several suspects armed with rifles”, police said.
Helicopters were flying overhead as police sealed off the city in the hunt for other attackers, while neighbouring countries stepped up border checks.
The shooting erupted just hours before Austria was to re-impose a coronavirus lockdown, with people out in bars and restaurants enjoying a final night out.
It follows a spate of Islamist attacks in France and triggered an outpouring of solidarity from Western leaders including US President Donald Trump.
– ‘Heavily armed’ gunman –
Two men and two women were killed in the attack, an interior ministry spokesman said, while about 15 more have been injured, seven seriously. Police also said an officer had been hurt.
The first shots were heard at around 8 pm (1900 GMT) in the city’s centrally-located first district.
“It sounded like firecrackers, then we realised it was shots,” said one witness quoted by public broadcaster ORF.
A gunman “shot wildly with an automatic weapon” before police arrived and opened fire, the witness added.
Another spoke of at least 50 shots being fired.
“All the signs make it clear it’s a radicalised person and a person who feels closely connected to IS,” Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said of the slain attacker.
Police had used explosives to blast their way into the apartment of the dead man who had been “heavily armed”, he told a press conference.
The minister had earlier said: “According to what we currently know, there is at least one attacker who is still on the run.”
It was unclear how many assailants were involved.
– ‘Never be intimidated’ –
Speaking to ORF, Kurz said the attackers “were very well equipped with automatic weapons” and had “prepared professionally”.
He also tweeted: “Our police will act decisively against the perpetrators of this repulsive terror attack.
“We will never be intimidated by terrorism and we will fight this attack with all means.”
Kurz said that while police were concentrating on the anti-terror operation, the army would take over the security of major buildings in Vienna.
Nehammer urged Vienna residents to remain in their homes and keep away from all public places or public transport. He said children would not be expected to go to school on Tuesday.
An AFP photographer said large numbers of police were guarding an area near the opera house.
The president of Vienna’s Jewish community Oskar Deutsch said shots had been fired “in the immediate vicinity” of the Stadttempel synagogue, but added that it was currently unknown whether the temple — closed at the time — had been the target.
– ‘Cowardly act’ –
At the busy bars and restaurants, people were told to remain indoors.
“At the beginning, I thought to myself that maybe we were making an American film or that they had drunk too much,” said waiter Jimmy Eroglu, 42.
But then he heard shots. “The police came in and said, ‘you all have to stay inside because there’s a probably a dead man there'”.
Robert Schneider, who lives in central Vienna, went out and found two lasers trained on his chest.
“Hands up, take off your jacket,” officers shouted at him, the 39-year-old told AFP. “We had seen nothing, heard nothing. We are in shock.”
Austria had until now been spared the sort of major attacks that have hit other European countries.
Germany stepped up checks at the Austrian border as Chancellor Angela Merkel said: “The fight against these assassins and those who instigate them is our common struggle.”
President Emmanuel Macron of France tweeted: “We French share the shock and sorrow of the Austrian people”.
On Thursday, three people were killed at a church in the French Riviera city of Nice, and a schoolteacher was beheaded by a suspected Islamist outside Paris on October 16.
Leaders of other nations also voiced support for Austria.
“These evil attacks against innocent people must stop. The US stands with Austria, France, and all of Europe in the fight against terrorists, including radical Islamic terrorists,” Trump said.
EU Council chief Charles Michel tweeted that the bloc “strongly condemns this cowardly act”.
Even in midst of a deadly pandemic, the Viennese seek to look death straight in the eye — an attitude on display at a morbidly humorous museum devoted to death and burial.
Right below the funeral parlour of the Austrian capital’s famous Central Cemetery, burial shrouds and coffins have been on display since 1967, making the Vienna Funeral Museum the first museum to trace how we mourn the dead.
It is perhaps fitting, given the local expression: “Death must be a Viennese”.
“A lot of people are probably afraid of death, but it’s inevitable -– along with taxes! –- so it’s a good idea to show that things haven’t changed that much,” says visitor Jack Curtin, a Vienna resident of American origin in his 70s.
After a day spent touring the graves of the great and the good, he has taken in the museum collection together with a friend, pronouncing it “excellent”.
In normal times tourists from as far afield as Japan and Canada would come to marvel at the re-usable coffins — introduced in the 18th century by Austrian Emperor Joseph II — as well as the futuristic-looking “cocoon” coffin.
But thanks to the blow dealt to travel by the pandemic, the Viennese will largely have the site to themselves on Halloween and All Saints Day.
– Morbid side –
Despite the pandemic, however, the museum’s new temporary exhibit commemorating the 250th anniversary of the birth of Ludwig van Beethoven is drawing visitors.
Alongside insights into the life of the German composer, who was laid to rest in the Central Cemetery, the exhibition also naturally includes his death mask and objects relating to his funeral.
Fellow composer Joseph Haydn was also buried here — although his skull, stolen by medical students in 1809, was only recovered nearly 150 years later.
“Vienna is well known for its morbid side,” says visitor Julia Wuerzl, who has come for a stroll through the leaf-strewn grounds that serve as the last resting place for three million people, outnumbering the city’s living residents by more than one million.
As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold, the museum says that it felt encouraged rather than dissuaded to keep its doors open, hoping to help locals consider death as a part of life.
“I believe that because of coronavirus, people spend more time contemplating what kind of significance death could have for their life,” as well as how they would like to be buried, says museum spokeswoman Sarah Hierhacker.
– Lego deathmatch –
Recent trends include the use of compostable urns as well as of a new area dedicated to joint burials of people and their pets that allows for “strong bonds to be safeguarded beyond death,” according to a brochure.
The one thing that’s frowned upon, however, is dodging the subject, even when it comes to children: The museum’s gift shop offers Lego sets of crematoriums, hearses, and skeletons.
“While it is certainly necessary to choose words that are suitable for them, it’s still crucial to be clear and transparent with children of all ages, because taboos create fear and a sense of being abandoned”, says psychotherapist Michaela Tomek, who specialises in treating children who have experienced trauma, such as the death of a parent.
The Gothic Lego figurines, some of which are reminiscent of the Addams Family characters, have long been among the gift shop’s best selling items, but the latest hit has been funeral service-branded face masks.
“Denying the coronavirus secures our jobs,” reads a typical piece of black humour printed on one of the masks.
“We produced 3,000, but we’ve had 7,000 orders,” says Hierhacker, looking on as a disappointed visitor leaves empty-handed.
As elsewhere, the pandemic is on everyone’s mind, leading a visitor to indulge in some gallows humour and ask if Vienna will put its once infamous “hearse tram” back into service.
At the height of the 1918-1920 Spanish flu, the tram transported thousands of bodies straight to the central cemetery.
A century later, the public transport line 71 still follows the same route, giving rise to the Viennese euphemism for death: “to take the 71”.
A mother confessed Saturday to killing her three young daughters in an apartment in Vienna, Austrian police said, without giving a motive.
The 31-year-old called the emergency services in the early hours saying she wanted to kill herself, and when police turned up they found the bodies of an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old girl.
The woman’s nine-year-old daughter was taken to hospital but was unable to be saved, police said, adding that the mother had some light injuries herself.
According to local media reports, the three girls were suffocated.
A consumer watchdog said Wednesday it is seeking hundreds of thousands of euros in damages from the Austrian state over coronavirus outbreaks in ski resorts suspected of spreading the deadly virus across Europe.
The head of the VSV consumer protection association, Peter Kolba, told a press conference that several civil lawsuits had been filed in a Vienna court over the outbreaks, including one in the now notorious resort of Ischgl.
Kolba says more than 6,000 tourists from 45 countries, including Germany, the UK, and the US, have been in touch with the association to report having been infected in ski resorts in western Austria.
At least 32 tourists who visited Austrian ski resorts have died, according to Kolba.
The VSV accuses officials of failing to inform the public of the outbreak in a timely fashion.
Icelandic authorities said on March 5 they thought Ischgl was a risk area after skiers returned from there with coronavirus infections and on March 7 a waiter in a bar became the first person in Ischgl itself to test positive.
However, the ski season — and its attendant partying — continued for several days.
The valley was not put under quarantine until Match 13, and Kolba says the hasty evacuation of tourists aboard cramped buses led to further infections.
Evacuated tourists have described sitting next to others who were sneezing and coughing.
“Chancellor (Sebastian) Kurz is the one who introduced all this chaos,” said Kolba, saying that the abruptness of the government’s quarantine announcement did not leave local authorities enough time to better manage the evacuation.
One case filed by the VSV concerns a 72-year-old Austrian who is thought to have contracted the virus on one of the evacuation buses and later died.
Another case involves a German tourist who was admitted to intensive care.
In both cases, the plaintiffs are seeking 100,000 euros ($117,000) in damages.
“These are just the first, but we will bring other lawsuits as well,” Kolba said.
The VSV has also lodged legal complaints in Tyrol, the region where the outbreaks occurred, but says that prosecutors there have not investigated thoroughly enough
Austria announced Thursday that private indoor gatherings would be limited to 10 people in the battle to contain a second wave of coronavirus infections.
“From midnight on Monday… all parties, private events and meetings indoors are limited to ten people,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told a press conference.
“We have an exponential rise in new infections in Austria,” he said, adding the country was going through a second wave of the pandemic.
Funerals will be exempt from the new rules and the limit for outdoors will remain at 100, Kurz said, with further exemptions for some cultural events.
He admitted it would not be legally possible to enforce the new limit in people’s homes but added that he hoped Austrians would follow the rule.
Also from Monday, cafe and restaurant customers will have to wear a mask whenever they’re not at their tables.
Previously only waiters and other staff had to wear a face covering.
Austria is recording several hundred new daily infections, with the one-day total reaching 882 on September 11, the second-highest of the whole crisis.
Kurz said he was aware the measures “will once again mean sacrifices” from the population but they were necessary “to hopefully prevent a second lockdown” and the “catastrophic consequences” that would entail.
Asked whether Vienna’s famous winter ball season could go ahead, Kurz said it was too early to say but admitted “autumn and winter will be very hard”.
“We expect a clear improvement next year in terms of progress with vaccines and treatments,” he said.
Neighbouring Slovenia has also seen a recent rise in infections and on Thursday announced that from Saturday masks would be mandatory in outdoor public spaces such as markets.
Masks will also be compulsory for pupils and teachers in secondary schools, and from Monday restaurants and cafes will have to close at 10 pm.
Hungary has also been experiencing a virus surge and on Wednesday Prime Minister Viktor Orban announced the country’s border closure would remain in place beyond October 1.
He added that the second wave of Hungary’s outbreak could be expected to peak around the end of the year.
Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia will remain exempted from Hungary’s border closures — exceptions which have raised criticism from top EU officials, who have warned of discrimination between member states.
Austria is experiencing the start of a second wave of coronavirus infections, its chancellor said Sunday, as cases spike upwards in line with other EU countries.
From Friday to Saturday, the Alpine nation of nearly nine million people reported 869 new cases — more than half of those in the capital Vienna.
“What we are experiencing is the beginning of the second wave,” Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said in a statement, appealing to the population to stick to anti-virus measures and reduce social contacts.
He warned that the mark of 1,000 cases per day would be reached soon.
France reported 10,000 new infections on Saturday, close to the level of the peak of the first wave in April, while Britain introduced new restrictions on gatherings last week as the number of new daily infections surged to around 3,500.
On Friday, Kurz announced the government would expand mandatory mask-wearing and slap new restrictions on events from Monday.
Masks will be compulsory in all shops and public buildings, in addition to places where they must already be worn such as supermarkets and public transport.
The conservative leader has warned the government could introduce further measures if cases kept rising but would try to avoid a repeat of the lockdown imposed in March, which entailed severe restrictions on movement and the closure of shops and restaurants.
Austria has so far been able to avoid the brunt of the health crisis. Total coronavirus infections currently stand at more than 33,000 with around 750 deaths.
The Austrian government was to examine Wednesday a progressive lifting of restrictions on freedom of movement to and from other border countries including Switzerland, Liechtenstein and eastern nations.
Germany has a warning in force until mid-June against taking foreign holidays.
With the tourism sector reeling, the European Commission was Wednesday set to urge EU countries to gradually reopen shuttered internal borders and to treat each member state according to the same criteria.
This would mean that if Austria opens its border with Germany, it must also open the border with the Czech Republic if that country is in a comparable health situation to Germany.
Austria’s health minister said Tuesday that the coronavirus pandemic in the country was under control, three weeks after it began to ease a strict lockdown.
“The situation is very constant, very stable,” Rudolf Anschober said, adding the daily increase in new infections had shrunk to 0.2 percent, down from up to 50 percent in mid-March.
Small shops and hardware and gardening stores reopened in mid-April after a month-long lockdown though wearing masks in shops and public transport, and practising social distancing became mandatory.
Bigger shops followed suit this weekend, and restrictions that largely forbid people from leaving their homes were lifted. Classes in schools are resuming this month, and restaurants are expected to reopen by mid-May.
Anschober said the first phase of lockdown lifting had succeeded “excellently”, but reminded people to remain vigilant despite more easing measures.
The Alpine nation of almost nine million people has been spared the brunt of the health crisis, reporting almost 15,600 cases and 606 deaths to date. More than 13,400 people have recovered.
Austria said Friday it would start to re-open classes at schools from May 4 as it continues a gradual loosening of coronavirus lockdown measures.
Some 100,000 final-year students will go back to school on May 4, Education Minister Heinz Fassmann told a press conference.
Schools for six- to 14-year-olds will re-open May 15, while classes for other students aged 15 and over will follow from May 29, provided infections don’t surge again, Fassmann said.
He added classes would be split into two groups, with teachers taking only one group on a given day to ensure that numbers are kept to around 11 students per classroom so a safe distance can be kept between them.
The group not being taught at any one time will be able to work on assignments in other rooms or at home.
Students will also have to wear masks inside schools except for when they are seated at their desks inside classrooms.
Music and gym lessons will however not resume and the curriculum will focus on core subjects.
Austria this month began easing the lockdown measures imposed in March and which have so far succeeded in slowing the spread of the new coronavirus.
Small shops and gardening and hardware stores started to re-open in mid-April. Larger shops will follow next week. Restaurants are expected to re-open from mid-May.
The country of almost nine million people has been spared the brunt of the crisis so far with some 15,000 reported infections and 530 deaths.
Austria on Sunday banned gatherings of more than five people and told residents to go out only if necessary, in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus.
Police would enforce new restrictions on public life, the government said, threatening fines for non-compliance.
The tougher measures were decided at an extraordinary session of parliament, during which Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called on the population to self-isolate and limit contacts to “the people they live with”.
People should leave home only to work, buy food or help others, he said.
“The freedom of movement in our country is going to be massively limited,” Kurz said, adding the measures were “necessary to defend the health of the Austrian people”.
By Sunday, Austria had registered 800 coronavirus cases and two deaths.
Cafes, restaurants, playgrounds and sports facilities will now also be shut down, following Friday’s decision to close non-essential shops.