'People are afraid': Empty streets in Austria as country reopens shops and eases lockdown

By Denise Hruby
A woman wearing a face mask walks through downtown Vienna, Austria ( EPA )

On the streets of Mariahilfer Strasse, a shopping boulevard in the centre of Vienna, only a small number of people donning face masks stroll past stores.

Shops began reopening across Austria on Tuesday after the country started to loosen restrictions after a month of lockdown, but most people seemed to decide to stay at home.

A sign outside the Vienna Candy Store signals to passers-by that the small business is open, but inside, owner Adnan Sulejmani remains by himself.

“People are still afraid, just look outside,” Sulejmani tells The Independent.

Sulejmani stares out on to an almost deserted Mariahilfer Strasse, a strip that usually bustles with shoppers, tourists and office workers, where he opened his store just three months ago.

“It’s awful, really. It’s just a horrible situation,” he says, standing amid baskets filled with candied apples and gummy bears.

“We’ve only opened in mid-December, and things were going really well.”

For now, only shops smaller than 400 square metres are allowed to reopen, and rules of wearing a mask and keeping a minimum distance of 1.5 meters are being enforced.

Home-improvement stores, which also reopened, did however see a run on construction materials and gardening supplies.

Austria’s lockdown of all businesses considered nonessential went into effect on 16 March and, one month later, the country is among the first in Europe to start lifting restrictions. Denmark also opened schools and shops on Tuesday, and a day earlier Spain allowed those in industry and construction to return to work.

While the move in Austria offered hope for a return to some sort of normality, experts cautioned that it risks seeing the number of infections rise again and, at worst, leading to a renewed nationwide shutdown.

A man looks at cameras at a photo store after the Austrian government loosened its lockdown restrictions

Like countless others, the lockdown has put Sulejmani’s business and his own financial future in limbo. The young business owner sacked three employees and dramatically reduced the hours of two others.

Sulejmani estimates his immediate loss is about €30,000 – he’s holding out for government relief and emergency funds, but says that he’s unsure what will become of his business.

The pandemic has crippled Austria’s entire economy and driven unemployment figures up by 65 per cent to its highest level since the end of Second World War.

The government has been lauded for introducing early restrictions on personal mobility and the economy, and has announced several relief funds and support packages totalling billions of euros.

“Everyone will be taken care of,” Austria’s chancellor Sebastian Kurz said, but anxiety over the future remains.

As the economic and social cost of the lockdown grew day by day, the government told the public ahead of last weekend’s holiday that restrictions will be lifted step by step. Larger stores and malls are set to reopen in May.

“We can’t ignore the economic and social ramifications, and from that point of view there’s no way around opening the economy again,” Clemens Martin Auer, a special envoy at the ministry of health and one of the government’s top advisers during the pandemic, tells The Independent.

“And from an epidemiological point of view, it’s justifiable,” Auer adds, pointing to the government’s success in flattening the curve.

The figure of new infections continues to recede each day, but overall infections are now doubling every two weeks – a sharp decline compared with mid-March, when the figure doubled every three days.

So far 384 people have died in Austria from coronavirus and more than 14,000 have been infected. By comparison, more than 12,000 people in the UK have died and more than 90,000 have been infected.

For this new phase of loosened restrictions, Auer and other officials have cautioned that progress could be jeopardised if people do not stick to a set of new guidelines, most notably wearing masks that cover the mouth and nose and keeping a distance of at least 1.5 meters to other customers, or waiting outside if shops appear too busy.

If that doesn’t suffice and the rate of infections increases again, a renewed lockdown is possible. “That’s an option, but we’re trying to avoid that by focusing on the elderly and other at-risk groups and trying to contain clusters as early as possible,” Auer continues.

Some experts have criticised the lack of planning for the next phase in Austria’s Covid-19 response.

“It’s immensely dangerous,” independent health economist Ernest Pichlbauer tells The Independent, adding that the government lacks epidemiologists who could help guide it through this next phase of opening up the economy.

“The government is doing this because it’s the public’s wish to reopen the economy, but it seems that they are doing this in blind flight.”

Businesses are also unsure how it will work out, and what to expect from the coming weeks. Many have decided to remain shuttered for now, aware that customers are still staying at home or because they face disrupted supply chains. But for independent business owners like Sulejmani, staying closed for another day wasn’t an option.

“I felt that I didn‘t have a choice,” he says. “I still don’t know if I have to pay rent this month, or what type of support I’ll get from the government – but whether we’ll make any money now? I don‘t know. But I have hope. We all do,” he says.