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Will testing allow bars and restaurants to open again in Austria from March?

Austria is considering a scheme similar to that used for hairdressers, where visiting outdoor bars and restaurants can be possible with a negative coronavirus test.

Will testing allow bars and restaurants to open again in Austria from March?
A worker removes extra chairs at the 'Orient Accident' restaurant at Naschmarkt market in Vienna, Austria JOE KLAMAR AFP

At a meeting on Friday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the country was considering allowing people with evidence of a negative coronavirus test to visit bars and restaurants again from March. 

The scheme, similar to that used for hairdressers and tattoo parlours in Austria, would allow bars and restaurants to open again. 

Have your say: What is your favourite outdoor dining spot in Austria?

The Chancellor said the hospitality industry now had until March 1st to present a plan for how such a scheme should operate. 

A decision will be made on March 1st, from which bars and restaurants could again be allowed to open. 

Should terraces and pubs with outdoor areas be opened again?

The mayor of Vienna is calling for the city’s “Schanigarten” or outside pub gardens and restaurant terraces to open in March.

While the government has previously said there will be no further easing until “around Easter”, on Wednesday, Health Minister Rudolf Aschober spoke of further consultations at the beginning of March.

The city’s health councillor Peter Hacker hopes the opening pub gardens will be considered in this consultation. 

The general secretary of the Chamber of Commerce (WKO) Karlheinz Kopf also gave an interview today to the Kurier, in which he called for more openings before Easter.

ORF reports Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Minister Elisabeth Köstinger will hold a summit today with  leaders from the gastronomy and tourism sector. 

A man eats a sandwich in a deserted restaurant Schanigarten JOE KLAMAR AFP

‘No longer acceptable’

Vienna is not alone in calling for restaurants and cafes to be able to serve customers outside. Der Standard reports on Wednesday, Innsbruck’s Vice Mayor Johannes Anzengruber said restaurants should open again, saying the situation is “no longer acceptable”, especially for the catering industry.

Burgenland’s governor Hans Peter Doskozil wants to open thermal hotels in March and sports associations are calling for more relaxation for sports clubs, pointing out children with a negative test are allowed to go to school, but are not allowed to play sports. 

The calls come despite a rise in infections in Austria, including statistics which show the British version B.1.1.7 of the coronavirus makes up a 40 percent share of Vienna’s cases.

However, the South African mutant has not yet been detected in the city’s sewage. 

Stable phase necessary

In an interview with Ö1, Katharina Reich, Director of Public Health in the Ministry of Health, said the rise in cases could be related to the increased amount of testing, but increased testing would eventually drive down the numbers of infections.

Before reopening, a stable phase is necessary in Austria.

Reich said she believed it would take until Easter to achieve really stable figures in the long term, however, earlier opening steps could take place “in principle”, “if the numbers go down accordingly” and if security concepts are in place.

A woman walks past a closed restaurant in the Naschmarkt JOE KLAMAR AFP

Risk outside ‘low’

Speaking to Der Standard, Med-Uni virologist Hans-Peter Hutter said it was a good idea to open up pub gardens, and warned otherwise people would start meeting up illicitly.

The mathematician Norbert Mauser also told the newspaper he was in favour of opening up the pub gardens as the risk of infection outdoors is low.

However, both experts agreed tables should be spaced out at of two meters with only four guests per table, and only one guest allowed to go to the toilet at a time. 

However the Ministry of Health told the paper the increase in new variants of the virus may set back plans to open earlier. It may also not be economically viable for smaller restaurants to open with corona measures in place. 

A sommelier in Vienna JOE KLAMAR AFP

Wine taverns to open daily

One positive piece of news is once lockdown for restaurants and bars is over, winemakers will be allowed to open their taverns in the vineyard every day from April, assuming the number of infections allows the end of lockdown.

Vienna’s vineyard wine taverns are normally only allowed to open from Friday to Sunday

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COVID-19

Austria in shock over doctor’s suicide following anti-vax abuse

Austrians expressed shock and anger this week over the suicide of doctor who had been the target of a torrent of abuse and threats from anti-vaccination protesters.

Austria in shock over doctor's suicide following anti-vax abuse

The bells of Vienna’s St. Stephen’s Cathedral rang out in memory of Lisa-Maria Kellermayr on Monday, and hundreds of people held a candle vigil outside, after the 36-year-old doctor was found dead at her practice on July 29.

She had long been the target of death threats because of her criticism of the widespread anti-lockdown protests of 2021.

An autopsy later confirmed that Kellermayr had taken her own life.

Austria has found itself deeply polarised over coronavirus restrictions and in particular a government policy –subsequently dropped — of making vaccination against the coronavirus compulsory.

Kellermayr — whose practice was in the region of Upper Austria where immunisation rates are particularly low — had frequently complained of the menace.

“For more than seven months, we have been receiving… death threats from those opposed to coronavirus measures and vaccinations,” she wrote at the time, sharing a message from one internet user who said they would pose as a patient in order to attack her and her staff.

She described how she had “invested more than 100,000 euros” ($102,000) in measures to ensure her patients’ safety and was on the brink of bankruptcy.

Then, at the end of June, Kellermayr announced on her professional website that she would not be seeing patients until further notice.

Daniel Landau, who organised a memorial vigil for her in Vienna, said that Kellermayr had become a virtual recluse for several weeks. “She didn’t dare to leave” her office, Landau told AFP.

Fanning the aggression

On Saturday, the head of Austria’s doctors’ association, Johannes Steinhart, said that while aggressive behaviour towards medical staff was not new, it had been “fired up and noticeably aggravated” by the debate over Covid-19 and vaccines.

The police, who had previously suggested Kellermayr was exploiting the situation for attention, insist they did everything to protect her. The local prosecutor’s office also rejected suggestions it could have done more.

“As soon as we received the police report (identifying one of the suspects), we sent it over to the relevant authorities in Germany,” spokesman Christoph Weber said.

On Friday, prosecutors in the neighbouring German state of Bavaria said a 59-year-old suspect was being investigated by a specialist hate speech unit.

At the beginning of the week, Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen visited the small town of Seewalchen where Kellermayr lived to lay flowers in her memory.

After news of her death broke, he had appealed to Austrians to “put an end to intimidation and fear”.

‘They’re gagging us’

But on some Telegram groups, the hateful messages continue.

“Some people are celebrating her death; others believe the vaccine killed her,” said Ingrid Brodnig, a journalist and author who investigates online disinformation.

“Stricts laws exist” already against online hate, but not enough is done to implement them, Brodnig said.

One government minister has floated the idea of a separate prosecutor’s office to target such cases. Doctors and researchers have also been targeted elsewhere.

French infectious disease specialist, Karine Lacombe, described how she had been vilified for her work as part of a collective of doctors combatting coronavirus-related disinformation.

She, too, complained that the response from the authorities in the face of threats was not robust enough, and has scaled down her public appearances this year.

“You end up thinking that the risk isn’t worth it,” she told AFP. “In that sense (the aggressors) have won, they are gagging us,” she said.

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