VIENNA – Austrians savored one last mulled wine in packed Christmas markets before the curtain came down on the holiday season that was just getting underway, plunging the country that gave the world “Silent Night” into its fourth lockdown of this pandemic on Monday.
The capital, Vienna, awoke groggily to the new restrictions, with people heading to work, to bring children to school or to exercise outdoors, more or less as usual.
This was not the draconian lockdown of the pandemic’s dawn in 2020, when movements were strictly monitored and discouraged. Police cars circulated, in keeping with government promises to step up controls, but no spot checks were being made.
“I am particularly annoyed by the lockdown,’’ said Georg Huber, a lawyer on his way to the office. “One should have done more research in, I don’t know, summer? One should have implemented a mandatory vaccination in the summer, when it turned out it would not be enough to hope that people get there without any coercion. I think the government just overslept.”
Austria has one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Europe, coming in at around 66% of the population of 8.9 million people. There is a vocal minority who refuse to be inoculated.
The government announced the nationwide lockdown on Friday, as the average daily deaths tripled in recent weeks and hospitals in hard-hit states warned that intensive care units were hitting capacity.
The renewed restrictions will be in place for at least 10 days, but are likely to be extended for a further 10, after which the government has indicated plans to open up so Austrians can celebrate Christmas normally. Restrictions, however, will remain for the unvaccinated.
As of Monday, people can leave their homes only for specific reasons, including buying groceries, going to the doctor or exercising. Kindergartens and schools will remain open for those who need them, but all parents were asked to keep their children at home if possible.
Health Minister Wolfgang Mueckstein said the lockdown was necessary to bring down the number of new daily infections, which have spiked to as many as 15,000 a day, and to reduce the number of virus patients in intensive care, currently at 531. But most of all, he said, it was needed to bring relief “to the people who work in this sector, the nurses and doctors who cannot take it anymore.”
“It is a situation where we have to react now. The only way is with a lockdown, a relatively hard method, to lower the numbers with a wooden hammer,’’ Mueckstein told national broadcaster ORF on Sunday night.
Political analysts say the government did not effectively communicate the necessity of the vaccinations early enough, and that many Austrians did not take the campaign seriously enough after former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz declared the pandemic “over’’ last summer. Kurz was forced out in a corruption scandal last month, replaced by his foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, who inside of a week expanded the controversial lockdown on the unvaccinated to a lockdown for everyone.
Schallenberg also has pledged to make vaccinations mandatory by Feb. 1, with details still to be hammered out. Experts have speculated that it could be limited to certain age groups or even tied to employment, as Italy has done. In Italy, health passes are required to access places of employment, and can be obtained with a negative test good for 48 hours in addition to the vaccination or proof of having recovered from the virus.
On the eve of Austria’s latest lockdown, people flocked to Christmas markets for one last night of public socializing, and many spent the weekend getting a leg up on holiday shopping before stores closed. The Austrian Trade Association said sales were up 15% on Saturday, when lines formed to take advantage of “Black Friday” deals, compared with the same day in 2019, before the pandemic.
But many feared the last-minute boost would not be enough to salvage the season for businesses that rely on the holiday season.
Sophie Souffle, who sells upcycled jewelry at markets all year round, said she makes most of her money over the six-week Christmas market period. Any promised help from the government will be enough to get by, she said, “but it won’t be enough to invest for future business.”
She looked around as people trawled stands, eyeing wares more than buying them, and gathering in small groups to enjoy the company of others before gatherings were restricted. She sensed more desperation than holiday spirit.
“The mood is pre-apocalyptic,’’ she said.
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