VIENNA -- More than half of COVID-19 deaths so far have been in Europe, but Austria has seen relatively few and is now taking steps toward a return to normalcy.
The nation’s 33-year-old chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, has been widely praised for his decisive, early lockdown on March 14 and mass testing of the population, measures that flattened the curve and have kept the death rate relatively low.
Kurz’s gradual reopening of the economy -- first with small shops and garden centers -- started April 6, the same day the WHO’s regional director for Europe warned governments against moving too fast:
“Now is not the time to relax measures,” said Hans Kluge. “It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of the society.”
But Austria went ahead, and on April 14, goldsmith Roman Bitner opened his shop in Vienna for the first time in a month.
“It's a glorious feeling,” Bitner said, noting the shop lost Easter business and expects a slow Mother’s Day, as some new rules take effect: “If a customer wants to try on earrings, she would have to try them on herself. I'm not allowed to do it anymore due to the risk of infection.”
The plan in Austria is a gradual return to normality. Austrians will have to wait until May 1 to go to a salon for a haircut, cafes and restaurants are due to reopen in mid-May. And public events won’t be allowed until the beginning of July.
Meanwhile, healthcare professionals warn the infection rate has to be monitored closely.
Dr. Rowhani, of the Franziscus Hospital in Vienna, says Austria’s lockdown was quite successful but also quite harsh.
“If what we did so far is to have had any meaning at all, we will have to evaluate what we're doing in steps of two weeks and four weeks as we go along.”